Which is worse: piracy or anonymity?

by Mathew on April 2, 2008 · 12 comments

The book publishing industry seems to be slowly coming to the realization that digital media affects them just as it does the music and movie business: The Times has a story about a bleak forecast from the London-based Society of Authors that “book piracy on the Internet will ultimately drive authors to stop writing unless radical methods are devised to compensate them for lost sales.” Hey, I know — what about a tax on ISP accounts? Some of those in the music industry seem to think that will solve all of their problems.

The story talks about how the Internet is “awash” with copies of entire books by J.K. Rowling and others, as well as chapters or excerpts from popular novels and other books, and throws in some scare-mongering about Google’s book-scanning project. Then the chairman of the Society of Authors, Tracy Chevalier, comes up with her view of the dark future that lies ahead if the Internet isn’t stopped somehow:

“For a while it will be great for readers because they will pay less and less but in the long run it’s going to ruin the information. People will stop writing. There’s a lot of ‘wait and see what the technology brings’ but the trouble is if you wait and see too long then it’s gone. That’s what happened to the music industry.”

Is the music industry gone? Hardly. It may in the midst of a painful transition from one business model to another, but it is hardly gone. Apple has sold billions of songs through iTunes, and both artists and record labels that are open to new ideas are finding ways to use the Web instead of just complaining about it. So are authors: Brazilian novelist Paul Coelho, for example, has been actively pirating his own books, and has found that his sales have increased by leaps and bounds.

He’s not the only one either — other authors are either providing copies of their own books for free or as a “pay what you want” download, or are offering chapters for readers to download. As one author put it on his blog, for a writer obscurity is a much worse fate than piracy (as Tim O’Reilly noted back in 2002). Ms. Chevalier would be better off helping her members experiment with some of these new models, rather than sitting behind the barricades waiting for someone to rescue her.

Update:

On reading Mike Masnick’s take on the Times piece at Techdirt, I think I may have been a bit too harsh with respect to Ms. Chevalier’s comments — although I will note that one of the prospects she raises as an alternative is government intervention, which seems to me to be a slippery slope leading to something like the music industry’s ISP tax. In any case, Mike makes a good point that at least she seems to be open to new models, and to that extent she should be congratulated.

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