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July 14th, 2012

How Not to Fight Ebook Piracy

The estimable Janet Perlman recently posted a link to an article suggesting a "new" concept in ebook piracy protection that doesn't involve any sort of encryption or tying of files to a particular device. The gist of it is to embed a purchaser's personal information in the file purchased. If the purchaser knows his/her name or address are somewhere in the file, well, they're less likely to post it on Pirate Bay, no?

This concept is not new; I remember talking it as long as ten years ago, when ebooks were still exotica. It's as wrongheaded as it is obvious, for the following reason: The fastest-growing source of files shared on Bit Torrent is material taken from stolen readers, tablets, and smartphones. If somebody swipes my tablet and the files stored on it are somehow traceable to me, then once the files appear on the file sharing networks, publishers might assume that I was the one who uploaded the files--which in most cases is a felony.

This is true whether or not my name is actually embedded in the files. A serial number or database key pointing to my sales record in the publisher's store would be enough.

I've written before about massive ebook collections available on pirate sites. The file I mentioned in that entry was an old one, and crude. Newer and even bigger ones are available now. (No, I won't tell you where they are.) Specialized collections are turning up as well, as specific as books on programming for Android.

Driving the trend is the appearance of specialized private Bit Torrent trackers catering to ebooks. If you've never studied up on the torrent scene it's a little hard to explain, but Big Media pressure is driving a lot of torrent traffic into a darknet of members-only trackers that keep their members on very short leashes. To avoid getting kicked out you have to upload as much as or more than you download. Of course, if nobody wants to download what you upload (because it's of poor quality or they already have it) your ratio goes down and the admins show you the door. This creates pressure to find new material to upload, especially in private trackers with few members who very quickly grab everything of even minor interest to them.

The torrent scene is a numbers game, and ebooks are small files compared to movies or TV shows. So collection editors are grabbing files anywhere they can to spin out new collections. If your device is stolen, your files will find their way to the pirate sites. If your name (or some other identifiable traceable to you) is in those files, you're the one in trouble, and not the pirates themselves.

File piracy may be an unsolvable problem. The last thing we want to do is propose solutions that might turn completely honest purchasers into criminals--thus providing a perverse incentive to stop buying, and pirate other people's files instead.