Online pirates turn to ebooks

I made the front page on New Year’s Day (well, the bottom of the front page!) with this joint investigation into e-book piracy.

It’s easy to track down major books before they are even released, available for free on the internet, with only Google as a tool – as we proved.

Publishers hope that Google will bring in a new policy to demote these sites in the search results, to make finding the illegal files that bit harder. But it’s a problem that dogs music and film as well as publishing.

Full text is on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold.

Pirates plunder ebooks trade

Kate Mansey and Cal Flyn
The Sunday Times, 1 January 2012

Pirated ebooks are being downloaded free from websites even before they are officially released as part of an illegal trade that has more than doubled in the past year.

Publishers admit they are struggling to contain an explosion of pirate sites on the internet where readers pay nothing for popular titles that would normally cost up to £12.99.

In the past year, the Publishers Association has issued 115,000 legal threats to websites to stop them offering pirated ebooks. In 2010 it issued about 50,000. Digital versions of some of the most eagerly awaited novels of 2012 were easily downloadable last week from pirate sites.

With ereader and ebook sales booming over Christmas, publishers face a similar battle with piracy to that which hit the music industry a decade ago. It is estimated up to 20% of ebook downloads are from illegal file-sharing sites.

Publishers are in talks with government ministers and Google, the search engine giant, to find ways of combating the trade. They have asked Google to demote pirate websites artificially so they do not appear high up in search results.

Last week, however, a simple Google search for the book title or author and the terms “download”, “ebook” and “torrent”, a term used in file-sharing, revealed that two significant upcoming titles could be downloaded within minutes.

Dean Koontz has sold more than 400m books worldwide, or 17m copies a year. His latest thriller, 77 Shadow Street, will be released on January 19. Pre-ordering the hardback on Amazon costs £11.96.

Both ebook and audiobook versions of 77 Shadow Street were available on Demonoid.me, a website known for pirated copies of games, music and films. They appeared in the first few pages of Google search results, and could be downloaded within two hours using “torrent” software, which is used for downloading large files quickly.

Chad Harbach became a publishing sensation in the US when his first book, a baseball epic called The Art of Fielding, was snapped up for a $665,000 (£430,000) advance. Although the ebook is on sale, the hardback version is not released in Britain until January 5. It has spent the past eight weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and has spawned a book about the writing of the novel, released by Vanity Fair.

Ordering a copy on Amazon costs £10.19. But it was also available for free on Demonoid.me, taking less than half an hour to download. Among the comments on the site was: “Cancel my appointments. Hold my calls. I’ve been waiting for this one! Thanks!!!”

The government has been mediating talks between publishers and internet search engines to thrash out a deal where pirate sites will not appear in the first page of a search for an author or a particular book.

A voluntary code of conduct is being drawn up but it could be months before it has the agreement of all parties. The culture, media and sport department will release a green paper in the new year.

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said: “It is like all creative industries — film and music have been facing this for a number of years and publishing is not going to be immune. The number of stop notices we have issued has really ramped up within the last six months.

“We’ve found that if you tap in a book title to Google, often you will be directed to two or three infringing sites. Search engines are the gateway to piracy.

“That’s why we are working with the government to try to encourage search engines to do more to reduce the prominence of these infringing sites.

“We’re not asking them to take them off the index altogether but to amend the algorithm so these results are demoted, which would  mean you would have to dig a lot deeper to find an infringing site.”

Google UK says that, on average, a pirate link is removed from a search result within seven hours of it being drawn to their attention.

Millions of new ereading devices were given as gifts over Christmas. Amazon said it sold more than 4m ereaders and tablets in the US in the run-up to Christmas.

At the opening of the Frankfurt book fair in October, Gottfried Honnefelder, head of the German group representing publishers and booksellers, said an estimated 60% of all German ebooks were downloaded from illegal file-sharing websites.

Lucia Etxebarria, an award-winning Spanish novelist, announced last month that she had quit writing altogether because the revenue loss from illegal downloads had forced her to seek other employment.

Some authors, such as JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, have refused to release ebook versions of their work because of fears of piracy.

However, Claire Holloway, operations manager at Bookmasters Distribution in the US, said: “An author like JK Rowling may refuse to put the Harry Potter books out as ebooks but if someone has a scanner, they can create an ebook in no time.”

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