Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under The News

I confess that I own a copy of George Orwell’s 1984. I’ve read it, and enjoyed it. I will also confess to going through a bit of an anti-authoritarian phase in my youth; my hair was shaggy, I wore flannel shirts with holes in them, and I referred not infrequently to a vague consortium of evildoers known collectively as “The Man.” But here’s the important thing: I learned more about the world, and subsequently stopped spouting insipid nonsense. Some people have yet to do that.

But first, Dear Reader, let me tell you a story. Amazon sells a device called the Kindle. The Kindle is like an iPod, but instead of playing music, it displays books. (In point of fact, the Kindle also can play music, but this ubiquitous feature is built into practically any consumer electronics you can think of today.) Kindle owners put books on their device by connecting it to a computer and either (1) purchasing books from Amazon directly, or (2) “finding” the full text of books somewhere else.

Given that many works from as far back as 1923 are still under copyright, “finding” the full text of books is tricky. The wonderful Project Guttenberg makes books that have lapsed into the public domain available for download at no cost. But if you’re looking for copyrighted (read as “most”) books, you’re in a bit of a pickle.

The Options

Your first option is to buy from Amazon. I’m told it’s quick, and you can purchase books using the Kindle’s wireless modem anywhere you can get a cell phone signal. More on this later.

Your second option is to bootleg books. While downloading movies and music makes headlines, there are numerous groups that specialize in pirating books. The Harry Potter books were notably pirated weeks before they came out, and the popular Twilight series of books are similarly the subject of piracy. The market forces that drive book piracy are a little more complicated than the ones behind movies and books.

Initially, you may ask why anyone would bother to pirate a book when there are these things called libraries that give books away, let you read them, and charge you a nickel if you’re a slow reader. Wildly popular book series have rabid (young) fans that all need to read this book, like, today, ohmigod. Libraries aren’t exactly rolling in money at the moment. Why should they buy a hundred copies of Harry Potter and the Inane Plot Twist today, when in a month, five copies will suffice? Libraries don’t necessarily serve the needs of masses of rabid fans for wildly popular books.

What does that even mean

And piracy means different things to different people. Every day as I walk to work, I pass by a table of DVDs for sale for five dollars each. These are obviously pirated films, many of which are actually still in theaters. Bootleg copies of movies abound on the subway, even if you’re nowhere near Chinatown. However, the bootleg book market isn’t quite as confrontational.

Again, when libraries fail to serve the market, Harry Potter pirates will pop up on street corners in major metropolitan areas, but the fact is that book piracy is almost entirely confined to digital distribution on the internet, and for good reason. Books are big: while blank CDs and DVDs are a few pennies, buying reams of paper and ink and binding the books is significantly more labor (and wallet) intensive.

sidebar: You’ll note that books are distributed in analog format (paper), while music and movies have shifted to digital formats (on physical media) to cut costs. However, the reason that record companies and film distributors prefer to distribute their products digitally - effortless and instantaneous duplication - is one of the many reasons that piracy is as widespread as it is among music and movies.

Pirates of the HTTP’s

So what does this all mean? I submit that book piracy is mostly done on the internet, and mostly for books for which the library’s “come and get it for free” offer fails. Wildly popular books among people who are technologically sophisticated - often the young and the nerdy - seem to be the most pirated: Twilight and Harry Potter.

Remember the Kindle? If you’re not a young person desperate to find out what happens in Harry Potter and the Magical Prom Date with a Were-Cheerleader, and you’re not interested in the complete works of John Locke or other fine public domain texts, piracy isn’t likely satisfy your demands any more than the public domain will.

So you toss some dollars Amazon’s way, and you download 1984: a nice, heartwarming tale of fascist autocracy. A few weeks later, Amazon finds out that the company that started selling 1984 didn’t actually own the rights to it. Oops. While this seems like something that would behoove Amazon to check out before selling something, who am I to argue with runaway success?

Amazon subsequently removes the offending book from its online marketplace, and deletes the book from its customers’ Kindles. The first half is undeniably a good idea, and the second half makes us feel a little squeamish because we as a society don’t really pay attention to the difference between a license and a purchase. One is a running contract, and the other is a change of possession. More on this in another essay.

But the fact that one of the books in question is 1984 led swiftly to the cries of Big Brother, hackneyed Animal Farm references, and a facepalm-worthy amount of e-outrage. Dear Reader, I’m taking a stand.

This is (barely) a stand

Everyone shut up. This is not Big Brother, it’s Big Bother at best. The fascists in Orwell’s book were autocratic government bureaucrats that monitored their citizens, lied to them, and controlled as many aspects of their lives as possible.

Amazon is not the government. They only know what you voluntarily tell them (name, age, address, favorite movies, credit card number, phone number), and there is no law requiring you to tell them a damn thing. Stop crying Big Brother every time someone with more money does something you don’t like.

Amazon’s jackbooted thugs haven’t kicked in your doors to rip your children from your arms. Amazon did something catastrophically stupid by selling a book it didn’t have the rights to sell. (What idiot said piracy was only for the young Harry Potter fan?) As Amazon had the ability to remove the offending book from Kindles, one of their lawyers probably pointed out that Amazon could be guilty of copyright infringement if they didn’t. Amazon put themselves in a lousy spot and jumped ship as swiftly and clumsily as possible.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.