Could Pirates Be Your Friends?

At university press meeting, some see advantage to having their works copied without permission.
June 6, 2011

BALTIMORE — In the digital age, "copy" has become something of a four-letter word for academic publishers. The copyright wars between publishers, libraries, and interlopers such as Google have resulted in courtroom skirmishes over what is free, what is fair — and what, ultimately, is best for creativity and intellectual life.

But parallel to this heady debate, university presses face another copying problem that has been complicated by the growing importance of digital content: Piracy.

"Illicit activities with scholarly books used to be limited to worries about someone taking the last copy of a book from the MLA stand … or these quaint events like photocopying and Kinko’s," said Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press. "But now," Kiely continued, "with the Internet, it’s incredibly easy to scan books, break the [digital rights management safeguards] on the digital files and make them available all over the world."

Contra the debates about e-reserve copying and "orphan works," there are few who would argue that copying and uploading entire e-books to free-content websites constitutes "fair use" of the authors’ intellectual property.

However, here at the annual conference of the Association of American University Presses on Friday, Kiely suggested that piracy might not pose such a threat to authors or the people who publish them.

In a session titled “Is Piracy Good for Sales,” the Chicago press director did not suggest that piracy be encouraged or legalized. But he made a case for ignoring pirates — and even appreciating piracy that might, in some cases, boost the visibility of certain titles that otherwise would have languished behind a pay wall.

The University of Chicago Press has published hundreds of titles in e-book form, including a number of “trade” books, which are aimed at a general audience and are considered more likely to become profitable. But when the press recently analyzed which of its books were being pirated, it found that most came from the more obscure, less lucrative parts of its list.

“The majority of the titles that were infringed upon were scholarly monographs,” Kiely explained. “It’s very hard to find a correlation between the appearance of these books on these sites, and lost sales. In some cases you can’t help but think that … obscurity might be our biggest problem, rather than piracy.”

The cost of combating piracy — a tedious and sometimes fruitless exercise — may, in such cases, far exceed the cost in lost sales from having those titles available for free, he added. Allowing more obscure titles to change hands freely on the Web might even result in buzz, which could eventually translate to more sales, Kiely added.

But fellow panelist Christoph Brem, vice president of sales for the Attributor Corporation, a company that foils pirates on behalf of publishers (including a handful of university presses), was quick to draw a distinction between “guerilla marketing” strategies aimed at creating new markets by seeding old ones with free copies of a product, and failing to pursue pirates whose thievery could theoretically produce similar results.

The difference is control, Brem said. When you identify tastemakers and give them free versions of your product, it is like a controlled burn: intentional, limited, and measurable.

“I haven’t seen a single instance that proves that piracy is good for sales,” Brem said. “I have seen statistics that show that protection is good for sales.” He cited studies that show that every day, there are 1.5 to 3 million search-engine queries for free, illegal versions of the 90 top-selling titles in Amazon’s online bookstore. “I think it’s hard to argue that all this leads to more sales,” Brem said.

But during a Q&A session, several of the university press reps in the audience suggested that the same rules that apply to piracy and sales in the context of a Dan Brown thriller might not translate to, say, a book on 19th century weather anomalies as recorded by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Scholars working from electronic texts are more likely to want to make annotations that they can return to later — which can be harder to do with a pirated e-book, said Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book. Apps designed to help save, organize, and share annotations might not work with pirated versions of certain e-books, Stein said, noting that he had recently experienced such difficulties while attempting to annotate a pirated copy of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

And while a casual reader, for example, might not have to worry about accurately notating the precise location of certain passages of an e-book, scholars do, said Michael Jensen, director of strategic Web communications at the National Academies Press. A scholar, on the other hand, fearing incorrect metadata, might be wary of citing a pirated version, Jensen suggested. So even if that scholar had originally downloaded a pirated copy of the book (for purposes of low-cost browsing), he might ask his library to buy a legitimate copy if he ends up wanting to cite it.

“To some extent, our realm seems more appropriate for piracy, as far as driving sales, than almost any other sector in publishing,” Jensen said.

It may be that university presses need little convincing. According to a recent survey by the AAUP, piracy ranks among the least alarming issues facing the association's membership. Only 28 percent of respondents said piracy was cause for major concern, while the remaining 72 percent said it was either mildly or not at all concerning.

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