December 02, 2010

Make the same mistake again

Given that most of my friends these days seem to inevitably be younger than I am, I have a feeling half the people reading this won’t even remember Napster. It’s the thing that sent the record industry mental. Basically, if you had a computer, you could download any song that anyone else with a computer and Napster had. Might not sound like much, but it was a revelation at the time. Remember, there was no YouTube, no Spotify, basically no way to get “music on demand” until this came along. You either phoned in and asked them to play your song on the radio and hope you got lucky, or spent £13 on the album from Our Price.

So when Napster turned up, it was amazing. In retrospect, it was shit. You downloaded the file from one other computer, limited both by how fast they could send and how fast you could receive, both of which weren’t great in the pre-broadband days. Files were labeled in a million different ways, often incorrectly, and while you could find a single song easily enough, god forbid if you wanted to try and download an entire album. You’d end up searching for every track individually, then piecing it together from various files with different naming conventions. It was a pain in the arse. Remember that.

The record industry shut Napster down. They could do that, as while it was “peer to peer,” as in, users downloaded files from each other, the server that facilitated that exchange was a single point of failure. Legal action gets that shut down, and Napster goes good bye.

For a while were in the wilderness years. Many of us will still physically recoil in horror at the mention of the word “Kazaa”, a horrible, buggy, resource hogging peer-to-peer program, that connected to a network infested with viruses and fake files, that we put up with because it let us download tiny, grainy, pixelated videos of porn.

This too, got hit by the legal eagles and faded into legitimacy but by this time big daddy BitTorrent was making a name for itself and well, with that that pirates pretty much won the technical battle. Files were shared in tiny pieces between hundreds of users, and directions on finding those others users were contained in tiny ‘torrent’ files that could be easily hosted on any website. There’s nothing to be shut down anymore, as once one torrent site vanishes, another re-appears. The media providers can do nothing more than go after the end users that download the stuff, which tends to lead to headlines like “8-year old girl fined £500,000” which doesn’t help anyone.

There’s a curiosity about BitTorrent though. It wasn’t done this way on purpose, it was just a technological and social co-incidence. Socially, BitTorrent requires people to actively share things they’ve downloaded. As such, a single song that’s just come out will be easy enough to get your hands on, but after a few weeks there’s a good chance people will have stopped sharing it. Technically, BitTorrent works better with larger files as they can be split in to more pieces and shared around better. The net result of this, is that if one does a search for a band, perhaps looking to download a specific song, or maybe an album, there’s a good chance the top result will say “XBAND Discography” – a single torrent with every single album they ever released. And it’s generally easier to get that than try and find just the one song you want on its own.

That’s how the music industry ate itself.

Still, lessons have been learned eh? This won’t happen again with ebooks….


Most of the big publishers are now insisting on “agency pricing” for ebooks. Which means that, rather than selling their books to Amazon et al at a given price, and leaving it to the e-tailers to price the book with the profit margin that they want, instead the publisher sets the price, uses Amazon etc. as a distributor, and pays them as a percentage. Oh and they want to sell the ebooks at the same price as the current printed version. And there’s VAT on ebooks so that often works out with them being more expensive.

And ebook piracy is hard to avoid. Hands up if you have a “to-read” pile of three or more books? For many, the first thing they’ll do when they get an e-book reader is try and get pirated copies of those books. Just because they don’t want to pay for them twice. Because there is no equivalent of ripping your CDs to your iPod here. Though morally it’s just the same. And publishers not only refuse to sell ebooks for less than the paper copy (despite the fact that they are inferior: they can’t be re-sold, lent, or used to wipe your arse) they won’t take the very sensible suggestion of just sticking a code in the paperback copy that lets you download an ebook version for free too.

And the thing with ebooks, is they’re even smaller than songs. You go searching for a given book as an ebook on a torrent site and there’s a good chance you’ll find it. It’ll probably be bundled in with another few thousand books. You can literally download a library of books in a few hours. A person can make one download, and never have to buy an e-book again. Which is depressing as hell, as books should have inherent value. But our publishers are destroying that by burying their heads in the sand, pretending piracy doesn’t exist, and trying to milk as much cash out of current ebook readers as they can.

There’s very few people these days that have iPods with 100% legitimately bought music on it. It’s part of the reason they took off: a portable way to play all the somewhat dodgily sourced albums people had. E-readers will eventually take off in the same way, and books will have to confront the big scary world of piracy. And it’s going to kick them sideways ten times harder than it ever did with music. Because the files are smaller. So they get put in to bigger collections.

Someone, somewhere, needs to wake up and start selling ebooks in a reasonable fashion (on a side-note, how awesome would an ebook Spotify be? About as awesome as paying a small monthly fee to have access to a library with every book ever written in it. Except for books by the Beatles) then my generation is going to end up being known as the one that killed literature.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Mike Willis

    I think one of the problems with eBooks, from the publisher and author point of view, is that unlike with music, the thing that can be copied so version easily once it’s released in an electronic form, is the sole source of income.

    One of the things that always comes out in discussions about music piracy is that artists can earn money in other ways apart from selling copies of their music, such as merchandising and live shows. Which sounds reasonable if you ignore the fact that there’s only so many t-shirts you can realistically sell and that as Imogen Heap ( and no doubt many others are, live shows are by no means guaranteed to make you money.

    An author can’t do live shows in the way that a musician can. They can’t stand on stage and perform 15 of their most popular pieces of work in an hour. When was the last time you saw somewhere wearing a t-shirt sporting the name/image of an author? Some authors might be lucky enough to be able to sell the rights for TV or film adaptations of some of their work and a tiny majority will find they’ve created a whole franchise branding everything from pencils to theme parks. But the vast majority will write books which stand alone with no other associated revenue streams attached to them. So it seems to me that when it comes to electronic piracy, the situation for authors must be worse than it is for musicians.

    03 Dec 2010, 13:38

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