Pirates and Dummies
I used to go up to the Pirate Bay on an almost weekly basis, to see which Paraglyph Press books were listed there. It ceased to be a priority after Paraglyph folded, and I don't think I've been up there for over a year. Then last week I learned that large NY publisher John Wiley & Sons is preparing a multiple "John Doe" style lawsuit focused on torrent piracy of its staggeringly popular "For Dummies" series. So I sailed back up to the Bay to see how bad it is on the ebook side.
For dummies in search of "For Dummies," my initial impression is that it's pretty good, which means that for Wiley, it's pretty bad. The word "Dummies" can be found in TPB's torrent catalog 691 times, and although some of those may not be "For Dummies" titles, I'm guessing that nearly all of them are. Individual books are listed, of course, but what probably worries publishers more is that a 6.3 GB file containing 572 "For Dummies" books is listed as well. 6.3 GB sounds like a lot. It's not. It's about the size of a single 720p feature-length Blu-Ray rip. 572 PDF ebooks in one lump, egad--in truth, I didn't know that there were that many "For Dummies" books in existence. (GURPS for Dummies is not something I would have gone looking for.)
Alas, the pirates have forgotten about me personally, and for that matter, about Paraglyph Press itself. Only one Coriolis book is listed, Michael Abrash's Graphics Programming Black Book. (There may be others that weren't cited with the word "Coriolis;" I didn't search deeply.) As I said, my own last name isn't present even once. Much more startlingly, David Brin is listed only three times. Connie Willis, twice. Vernor Vinge, once. Nancy Kress, not at all. Being hot must help; Neil Gaiman is listed 49 times.
One gets the impression that reading isn't a priority among pirates. To find out just what is, you need a better metric, and The Pirate Bay offers one: the number of complete torrents. "Seeders" are people who make available complete copies of a given file. "Leechers" are those who are currently downloading the file. The more seeders, the more popular a file, and the faster it will download to the leechers. (The protocol is interesting and described well here.)
Although there are hundreds of torrent trackers, the Pirate Bay is by far the most popular, ranking 91 on Alexa. I think it's pretty characteristic of the pirate world in general. So let's go count Pirate Bay seeders:
- The top audio book is Double Your Reading Speed in Ten Minutes. 548 seeders. (Irony alert! Near-toxic levels!)
- The top ebook is Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of The World's Best-Kept Secrets. 1,442 seeders.
- The top pirated app is Photoshop CS5. 6,412 seeders.
- The top music track is "We Found Love" by Rihanna. 7,010 seeders.
- The top game is The Elder Scrolls. 12,438 seeders.
- The top movie is Conan the Barbarian. 17,422 seeders.
- The top TV show (in fact, the top torrent of any kind) is an episode of "How I Met Your Mother." 23,259 seeders.
I hope I don't have to beat you over the head with it: Video is twenty times more popular on torrent sites than ebooks. Down in Dummies land, it's worse: The 572-book "For Dummies" collection has all of 99 seeders. Neil Gaiman's best (46) is less than half of that.
So why is a major book publisher suing a relative handful of torrenters? I'm guessing that it's because it can. BitTorrent is extremely "open" in terms of who's doing it, and if you're downloading you're automatically uploading too. Recording the IPs of people in a torrent swarm is easy. Suing them is dirt simple. Some money can be harvested offering settlements, but at those minuscule usage levels, not much. I'm sure that Wiley wants to exert a "chilling effect" on sharing of Dummies books, and they are--but only in the torrent world. Even though my books vanished from the Pirate Bay, it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to find them out on the bitlockers and Usenet, which for various reasons are much tougher nuts to crack on the legal side.
Video rules the torrent world because video is big, and the BitTorrent protocol is the most effective way to get video downloaded quickly. Small files like ebooks are elsewhere, unless they're gathered into massive collections the size of Blu-Ray rips. Ebook piracy seems to be a minor issue today because ebook piracy is mostly invisible. It's out there, and for all that I've pondered the problem, I return to the conclusion that the problem has no solution other than to sell the goods easily and cheaply, and to stop teaching people to be pirates by making the media experience complicated with DRM.
In the meantime, announcing mass lawsuits of torrenters of a specific product line pulls the Streisand chain hard. You might as well yell "Come and get it!" to people who hadn't known that all 572 Dummies books (or ebooks generally) could be found on torrent sites. This has to be balanced against whatever chilling effect the lawsuits may have, and I can't help but think that it's a wash, at best. The real result of such suits over the years has been to push piracy into places where it's difficult to see and almost impossible to police. The First Principle of whatever we try has to be this: Don't make the problem worse. If this means that no solution presents itself, we may have to content ourselves with that.