Piracy? You wish.

Piracy? You wish.

Publishers are spending a lot of time debating DRM on ebooks. Many of the powers that be are worried about piracy, they say, and they are resolute in making sure that there are locks on the books they publish.

There are countless interesting conversations on whether this helps Amazon with lock in (you can’t move your books around, so you’re stuck) and whether it hurts sales, etc. Not to mention whether the locks themselves even work the way they are intended to (they don’t.)

For me, though, the interesting notion is of book piracy itself.

How many more people would prefer a hard drive full of 10,000 songs to one with 10,000 books on it? We’re hungry for one and sort of unaware altogether of the possibility of the other. What would you even do with 10,000 books?

Software is pirated because in just a few minutes, the user saves a hundred or a thousand dollars, and feels okay about it because software seems unreasonably expensive to some (Photoshop costs about 10 times as much as Acorn). It’s theft of intellectual property, but a tempting one.

Music is pirated because many people have an insatiable urge to listen to music, all the time, preferably with unlimited variety. And radio taught us that music to be listened to doesn’t cost money.

But books?

Books are free at the library but there’s no line out the door. Books are free to read in comfortable couches at Barnes & Noble but there aren’t teeming crowds sitting around reading all day.

Books take a long time to read, require a significant commitment, and they’re relatively cheap. And most people don’t read for fun. Most of the inputs necessary for a vibrant piracy community are missing.

As Tim O’Reilly famously said, books don’t have a piracy problem. They have an obscurity problem. I have never met an author who didn’t wish that more people would read her book. Never one. On the other hand, Peter Gabriel and the rest of rock royalty rarely feel the same pangs. “What do you mean you’ve never heard Moondance?” I just can’t visualize Van Morrison saying that…

I’ve written several free ebooks (here’s one) and even when I want unlimited piracy, it doesn’t happen.

Book publishers are crippling their marketing efforts because they’re worried that 1% of their titles will be overshared. They have nightmares about classrooms of kids reading one copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, or entire divisions of companies reading a single copy of a $29 hardcover.

But the short head of the book market isn’t the future–it’s the long tail. And in the long tail world, overcoming obscurity is the single biggest hurdle. If only piracy was a problem…