A Philosopher's Blog

Ripping Books

Posted in Business, Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2008

Copying movies and music is old news. It is easy to do and all attempts to prevent it seem to be doomed to failure. It can probably even be proven that any encryption scheme must be such that it can be bypassed.

One medium that has done well in resisting copying is the printed word. While there have been numerous projects devoted to scanning books and making them available (such as Project Gutenberg and, more controversially, Google’s recent project), books still have two defense mechanisms that help protect them.

First, scanning a book is tedious work. Flatbed scanners do a decent job on a few pages, but scanning an entire book would be an ordeal. After all, you have to manually scan each page. Then the text has to be recognized via OCR software which takes time and is still not error free. Hence, the text will need to be edited-which takes even more time. There are commercial devices that do a better job-but they are very expensive. Given the time and cost of scanning books, this is an excellent defense. Of course, there have been some inroads against this defense (see Steven Levy’s column in the February 18th issue of Newsweek, page 24). For a mere $2,600 you too can have a set up for making copies of books that consists of two cameras and a rig for holding a book in place and in the dark. This is a less tedious than a flatbed scanner, but still very tedious. Also, it is rather expensive. So, it will probably be a while before people start copying new books and sharing them as they do stolen music and movies.

Second, people generally prefer to read a book that is an actual printed text. While Amazon is betting that people will be willing to switch to an electronic device for reading, the printed page is still the favored medium. Copying a song or movie onto your hard drive costs nothing. Printing a book still costs money-unless, of course, you have access to free printing. In most cases, it is obviously easier and cheaper to just buy the actual book rather than steal one by copying and printing it.

Naturally, someone who copied a book could make a profit selling bootleg printed copies. One interesting possibility is that a clever student might copy an expensive textbook and sell copies of it. Since some textbooks can cost over $100, a clever an unscrupulous person could make a tidy profit each semester. In fact, I have heard of students trying to sell photocopies of expensive texts to other students.

People might also be able to sell bootleg copies of bestseller-but selling illegal book copies would present some challenges and would probably have a rather narrow profit margin-assuming it has one at all. Selling a bootleg movie on DVD allows a decent profit since DVDs are cheap. Selling a bootleg book would be far less profitable since the book still has to be printed on paper and bound.

Interestingly, if electronic books succeed, they will obviously change things. Someone will find a way to hack the protection used on commercial electronic books and will then be able to distribute them as easily as people now distribute stolen music and movies. Further, access to professional quality electronic versions of texts (as opposed to the usual scanned versions) will make it possible to create high quality bootleg versions of books. This is because they can be printed right from such files-or after the files have been suitably cracked.

I am reasonably sure that as books go electronic piracy will become a serious problem for the printing industry. It will not, perhaps, be as extensive as the copying of music and movies, but it will still be a problem.