A cover-to-cover look at e-book piracy

Graeme Elliott

As an avid reader, a regular book shop customer, and generally a lover of all things book related, book awards are just some of the events I most look forward to during the year. Last week, saw Paul Beatty win the prestigious Man Booker Prize Award for The Sellout, and he’s the first American author (and the first author outside of the Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe) to do so since the application criteria changed in 2013. But today, 1st November, not only marks the start of a new calendar month, it is also World Authors Day, a day during which the literary community celebrates authors and the books they write.

There has been a lot of positive news this year in regards to book sales – overall, sales in the UK book and journal publishing industry rose by 1.3% to £4.4 billion, with the Publishers Association reporting that sales of printed books rose for the first time in 2015 (although this was a marginal 0.4%) after four years of decline, even though e-books saw a 1.6% decline last year − the first decline in seven years [1].

However, piracy remains an ongoing problem within the publishing industry as more users start to read books on their tablets and e-readers, some even circumventing paying for the books and opting to download them for free. Study books is a particular area that’s being hit hard by this development, mainly due to the high price points that students on little to no income are required to pay. This is becoming a major threat to the author’s IP, and one that authors as well as publishing houses are forever tackling.

But the very first arrest of an e-book file sharer in October 2016 has sparked great interest in this subject, and has started to concern all file-sharing portals that still have active communities. Back in 2015, the Spanish Reproduction Rights Centre (CEDRO), a non-profit association of book authors and publishers, filed a complaint against an e-book file sharer, which has led to the subsequent arrest by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior. The e-book pirate is said to have uploaded more than 11,000 e-books, and more than 400 websites have apparently helped distribute the uploaded titles [2].

This is a big win for publishers and authors as it is a step forward in the fight to protect their IP from those who are illegally distributing digital versions of their books online. Normally, e-books are pirated either from torrent sites (not only public torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay, but also dedicated private torrent trackers), or websites that provide download links specifically for e-books and magazines, and may use direct download cyberlockers to host digital files online. Some websites have been known to have the look and feel of a genuine e-book store, requiring visitors to sign up for a subscription in order to download a paid book for free. In some cases, when the user finally gets to download the file, they are then given a computer virus (hidden within a file such as a PDF) instead.

What other methods are publishers and authors attempting to combat these pesky pirates? Well, HarperCollins and LibreDigital have adopted Digimarc’s Guardian Watermarking for Publishing, an anti-piracy watermarking solution that embeds a unique and traceable digital watermark into the e-book, allowing distributors and publishers to track where the e-book is appearing online and identify unauthorized distribution [3].

Even ISPs such as Virgin Media, BT and Sky have been forced to block access to websites providing e-books for free – for example, Ebookee provides links to many study books that are available for students to download for free. Although users do not pay to download on these sites, the websites themselves gain revenue from sponsored advertisements as well as through commission when users sign up to premium accounts with affiliated direct download cyberlockers. Voluntary donations through payment processors such as PayPal are also appreciated as this helps towards the upkeep costs of the site.

But by far the most effective method of battling e-book piracy is by sending DMCA takedown notices. Whilst the effectiveness of takedown notices is often disputed, since files that have been taken down from one site often reappear on another, research shows that this method does have a positive effect. For example, research carried out in 2014 monitoring the takedown and sales of over 600 titles revealed that e-book sales for these titles increased by upwards of 14% when targeted[4].

In instances where the digital media is being distributed illegally without the copyright owner’s consent, it might be appropriate to employ an online brand protection solution to monitor for, and enforce against, infringing content.