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The advent of eBooks means the publishing world now faces similar piracy battles to the music industry faces with illegal downloads.
Publishers and experts at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany say eBook theft is unlikely to go away, but is a manageable problem with vigilance and action already underway.
eBook readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad are fuelling demand for digital books, which account in the US for about 20% of book sales according to Claire Holloway, of publishing services provider Bookmasters.
“If you give normal, regular, upstanding citizens a legitimate route to your material they are most likely to attain it legitimately, most people do not want to steal,” she said.
However, failing to offer a legitimate digital version of a book plays into the hands of pirates, who often simply distribute a scanned version of the book on the internet, said the Ohio-based operations manager.
Holloway added that academic and text books are more illegally copied than fiction due to their high prices and the fact that students often only need them for a term, prompting student pirating networks.
According to the German Booksellers’ and Publishers’ Association, some 60 percent of electronic books in Germany, where the market share is still under one percent, are being downloaded illegally.
Richard Mollet, chief executive of The Publishers Association, said it was difficult to calculate the size of the problem in Britain, where about four percent of combined print and eBook revenues come from digital works.
“It’s a very hard thing to do a study of because you have to ask consumers ‘those eBooks that you downloaded illegally, how many of them are actual direct substitutes for sales’?”, he said.
Unlike in music, where illegal services developed faster than legal ones for downloads, he said eBook retailers were used to dealing with publishers so “the ecosystem that built up around digital was legal”.
“We are in a happier place than music was in this stage of its digital evolution,” he said.
According to Mollet, people will always try to get pirated eBook content either because they believe it should be free, simply because they can, or because they do not want a corporate account or are underage.
“All these factors mean infringement will be present in our market, but it’s likely to remain a manageable proportion,” he added.
One of the steps The Publishers Association has taken is to set up an online service that allows members to identify where their content is on an infringing website anywhere in the world.
A legal notice is sent, which in 86 percent of cases results in the offending site agreeing to remove the content, Mollet said.
Thomas Mosch, of the Federation of German Technological Companies, believes it is a question of finding a balance and not scaring off well-meaning people willing to pay for legal content with over-rigorous measures.
“You will never be able to do anything about 10 to 20% of piracy,” he said.
“But with 80 to 90% of people ready to pay, the publishing industry should be able to live.”