Is eBook piracy threatening the entire publishing industry?

There is a quietly growing problem of eBook piracy threatening the entire publishing industry

While video and music piracy regularly steals the headlines in the technology world, there is a quietly growing problem of eBook piracy threatening the entire publishing industry. The wide availability of titles online is of particular concern to textbook publishers, whose already small audience is particularly tech savvy and happy to engage in widespread piracy.

To help illustrate the scale of the problem, NetNames has conducted a quick analysis of one site which is heavily focused on the piracy of College and University level course texts. However, the research could be repeated across a wide range of similar sites or different download systems with equally troubling results. is one of many similar download sites that have proliferated by offering access to files stored on Cyberlockers, which are ideally suited to the job of storing and distributing digital books, due to their relatively small size.

The site relies on user submitted links in order to generate its content, in a similar fashion to popular filesharing portals like Contributors generally share content they have uploaded in order to generate referral income, but there is some sign of a simple ‘charitable’ ideal also motivating the sharing of content.

To gauge the availability of popular academic content on the site, twenty textbooks from those listed in the bestselling lists on were collated. These titles covered a wide range in terms of price, with an average cost of around $70.

We found that every title was available as a digital book download via , (except one self-help book ,available as an audio book only, and of only marginal interest to students). On average, each book was available from over 20 different links on the Ebookee, site, across a variety of popular Cyberlocker file hosts. While a less than rigorous test - and certainly not exhaustive - this quick research gives a quick flavor as to the availability and potential cost of a single site to the publishing industry.

As previously noted, the small target audience of these books means any potential piracy could be particularly devastating to text book publishers, so the wide availability of such a range of content is a situation that is unlikely to go unchallenged long by the industry, especially given that the growth in devices such as tablets and e-readers is only going to make piracy more convenient.

While a rigorous system of piracy detection and takedown such as that offered by NetNames can go some way to mitigate any losses incurred to the industry, there are signs of other fundamental distribution changes which may substantially alter the way students access their course texts.

For instance, Amazon has introduced a system of textbook rentals for certain popular titles: students purchase a title for a semester before shipping the book back to Amazon at the end of that term for a refund of up to 70%.

Publishers are also experimenting with one-time use online access codes. These codes, which come bundled with the purchase of many textbooks, offer a single semester entry to an online portal containing supplementary learning materials that may be crucial to passing the course.

However, no major academic publisher has yet tried the O'Reilly model of an all-access subscription for books. It is possible to envision a kind of subscription solution for textbooks. A publisher might broker an agreement with a college to provide all texts (in physical form or online) for that course, charging a single fee to the college and which is funded via tuition costs or other means. Or perhaps we wait for the Spotify of textbooks, a clearing house solution which monitors which books are accessed and rewards publishers and authors accordingly. Possible futures can be sketched, but which, if any, may come to exist is likely more than a few semesters away.

Written by Ricky Bruce Piracy Intelligence Analyst, NetNames

5 October 2012

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