Wanna free book?

Matthew JC. Powell
4 April, 2008
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Pssst. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but if you head over to popular BitTorrent-based pirate software sites like The Pirate Bay, you can snag yourself a free copy of the popular books The Cult of Mac and the Cult of iPod. Absolutely free, with no restrictions or digital rights management whatsoever. Download the torrents, open them in a BitTorrent client, and a while later you have a free full-colour coffe-table book to do with as you wish. Score!

Who would take the intellectual property of author Leander Kahney and publisher No Starch Press and convert it into an electronic form and then release it onto Pirate Bay for all and sundry to steal? What dastardly dog would do such a thing?

No Starch Press, of course. Why do you ask?

Recognising that "the battle to stop people posting copyrighted material to torrent sites is one that can’t be won," No Starch decided a "can’t beat ‘em so join ‘em" attitude would be more productive. The copies available via this method are of considerably higher quality than is typical of stolen copyright books that find their way onto pirate sites.

It’s not entirely surrender, of course. Publisher Bill Pollock explains that the two books, while popular, had not enjoyed the success the publisher had expected. "I’ve always felt … that they suffered from a lack of visibility," he says.

Similar arguments are commonly put forward by proponents of BitTorrent and similar peer-to-peer file-sharing schemes, who claim that unauthorised distribution of copyright content amounts to free publicity for the publisher as much as it’s free content for customers. The reasoning is that once people have heard a few tracks from an album for free via BitTorrent, they are more likely to go out and buy the album legitimately. Even if they steal the entire album, they’re more likely to investigate the artist’s other works by legitimate means.

Record companies, for their part, ascribe a downturn in music sales to piracy, alleging that people are stealing music instead of buying it, not buying it because they stole it.

Anecdotal evidence for both positions is available.

(There is a third position — that no music worth paying money for has been released since 1970 — but that doesn’t seem a very popular view.)

No Starch hopes, with this experiment, to test the waters and see what happens. If sales of Kahney’s books pick up after the free distribution it will affirm the position of the pirates — stealing is advertising. If they drop, it will reinforce what the copyright holders have said — stealing is stealing.

Either way, it demonstrates a willingness on the part of an important stakeholder to accept the modern reality of electronic distribution and try to find a way to work with it rather than against it. Last time someone tried that in a serious way we got the iTunes Store.

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