Will piracy rip the spine out of ebooks?

Ebooks will be big - but will pirates follow in their wake?

The novelist Paulo Coelho links to torrents of his own books, while Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow has spent many years giving his books away for free, but that's by choice: the problem with pirates is that they share books whether the authors like it or not, and if they stick ads around the link they're making money from others' effort.

David Hewson for one is aghast. "I will happily write for nothing the moment supermarkets hand out free food, bars buckshee beer, petrol stations give away gas, and the taxman writes me a letter that starts, 'Annual return? Forget it. We don't need the money'. Until then I'd just like you to pay the modest price on the cover," he says.

Pirate books on file sharing site

SMALL SCALE: Although ebook piracy certainly exists, it's not on the same scale as music piracy - or at least, it isn't yet

"There is a real danger that we're sliding towards a cultural shift which divides creative writers from their work, where copyright itself is somehow seen as theft, a conspiracy against a public that has a 'right' to take what it wants from the web for nothing," Hewson writes. "If that happens we're headed for fewer professionally published books, a poorer range of literature, and the dumbing down of mainstream publishing to a handful of established genres and big-time authors."

One thing that might help is the difference in demographics. According to the Books & The Consumer survey of UK book buyers, the average book buyer is female and aged 35 or older, whereas the typical music pirate is male and aged 16-24.

No prizes for guessing which type of person is more likely to respond to Walkley's argument that, ultimately, you get what you pay for: "I also think it's important that as an industry we emphasise that supporting the production and distribution of high quality content has a price, and that books – whether in physical or digital form – represent on the whole a very reasonably priced form of entertainment or education. Copyright infringement isn't a victimless issue: it affects publishers, but most importantly it affects the creators behind the books."

Poorly designed ebook

IMPERFECT: The quality of many dodgy ebooks would make a book designer weep. It's all poorly scanned covers and messily formatted OCR-ed text

We get the distinct impression that Walkley and his peers aren't keen on suing grannies and dead people.

"Copyright infringement cannot be prevented altogether, only reduced," he says. Speaking personally, he says he'd like to see action against the most egregious offenders - but he also says that the key is to give consumers what they want.

"One of the most important things we can do is to make the purchase of legitimate ebooks as easy and as convenient as possible and produce a broad range of titles in digital formats," Walkley says. It's a lesson that took the music industry more than a decade to learn.

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