Illegal downloaders look beyond music to books

Using many rationales, pirates proliferate

by Sandeep Junnarkar

Early in his undergraduate years at Indiana University, Joseph Ruesewald said, he had trouble finding the required titles for a couple of his classes at the local bookstores. When he tried ordering the books online, he learned it would take too long for delivery.

Having come of age in the era of Napster, Kazaa and other file-swapping networks infamous as bazaars for pirated music, he knew exactly how to obtain the books — if not in his hands, at least for his computer’s hard drive.

Over the semesters, downloading books free and reading them on his monitor became routine, he said. He learned to adjust the screen color to off-white to help reduce eyestrain and depleted his university printing allotment by running off hundreds of pages at a time. “It became an alternative to going out and looking for the books in stores,” said Ruesewald, 21, who just graduated from the university’s school of informatics. He emphasized that he had sought alternatives to downloading books without permission by turning to publishers that allow readers to view a book’s pages one at a time. And he confesses a sense of guilt over playing the role of a “leech.” But “as a student, I was pretty broke and couldn’t really afford $100 textbooks,” Ruesewald said.

He is clearly not alone. While the music industry’s effort to quash the trading of pirated songs over the Internet has attracted far more headlines, the unauthorized swapping of digitized books is proliferating in news groups, over peer-to-peer networks and in chat rooms.

The activity is all the more striking because making a book available online is as cumbersome as ripping a CD, or converting it to MP3 computer files, is effortless. Each page must be scanned, run through optical character-recognition software and proofread before the complete work is uploaded to a network or transferred directly to a recipient.

Yet a quick survey conducted with peer-to-peer file-swapping software revealed the digital availability of dozens of titles currently on The New York Times’s best-seller list, including “The Da Vinci Code,” “The South Beach Diet” and, of course, hundreds of copies of any Harry Potter title. Even the official audio-book versions read by the authors or celebrities are easy to come by. Computer and technical books that can cost as much as $100 in print are also a mainstay.

Other recesses of the Internet are also rich in illegally traded literature. A visit to an Internet Relay Chat network revealed a multitude of titles being offered or sought every second. Usenet groups also draw a steady flow of visitors, like Steven Audette of Verona, a town in central New York known for its casino rather than its literary establishments. Audette said he had downloaded about 2,000 titles, including some duplicates in varying formats.

“I download philosophy, religious, technical, engineering, science, sci-fi, horror, musical theory and almost anything but tawdry romance novels,” said Audette, 39, a father of two with a background in management and logistics. Audette said he had never felt pangs of conscience when downloading books, although he sometimes bought a copy if he found it of great interest. “Perhaps the cost factor has numbed the sense of guilt,” he said. “I bought my first books when they were priced for 95 cents a paperback and less than $10 for a hardcover.” For classics he visits Project Gutenberg, a vast legal repository of mostly older works for which no copyright is in effect; he uses Usenet to download current publications illegally. “These groups offer opportunity to read books not always available,” he said. “I have yet to find a library or bookstore so well stocked.”

Audette estimates that about 70 percent of the works he downloads are still under copyright. He said he had uploaded only a few books. Envisional, a company based in Britain that tracks Internet piracy, estimates that 25,000 to 30,000 pirated titles are available online. The vast majority are English-language titles, although pirated German, Spanish and French books are also plentiful. An estimate of how many people are actually downloading the books is harder to come by, however, said David Price, a researcher at Envisional.

Price said that although researchers were able to track the number of people using file-swapping applications, it was difficult to tell exactly what they were downloading. And the problem with Usenet and Internet Relay Chat, he said, is that once users have established initial public contact, they tend to carry out their transactions privately. “Most studies show that music piracy is by far the most popular, followed by film and movie piracy,” Price said. “Book piracy is certainly not at those levels, but it is popular enough for publishers to be concerned about it.” Publishing houses are taking notice. “We monitor the World Wide Web very closely and take this issue very seriously because we take any violation of our authors’ copyrights very seriously,” said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House. “We have sent a number of take-down notices to such sites and have received immediate compliance.”