steal this book

Steal This Book by Abbie HoffmanWhy don’t people steal books?

I mean, I’m sure people do steal books, but it doesn’t seem to happen in any extraordinary volume, as compared to, say, music. It’s not unusual to know someone who has downloaded a copyrighted music file without paying for it (aka “stealing”) – you might have even done it yourself, no? – but do you know a single person who has ever downloaded a copyrighted book without paying for it?

The music industry has been famously apoplectic for years about the problem of illegal music file sharing. The movie industry watched the music guys disintegrate, and is aggressively riding the Big Hollywood effort to stop the evil Internet so that what happened to music doesn’t happen to movies.

Now the book industry is also undergoing seismic shifts due to new technology, but this begs the question: why didn’t books, the older and easier medium to steal, come first – why doesn’t anyone steal books?

Is it the medium?

Smaller things are usually easier to steal, and this goes for the digital world as well as the physical world. Constraints on bandwidth, storage and processing power are one reason that music files are more broadly shared or stolen than movie files – a typical movie file is well over 100 times larger than a typical music file. But a book file can easily be less than a tenth the size of a file for a 3-minute song, so again, it seems strange that these little book files don’t get the five finger discount.

Maybe music and movies are different because they require electronics to play a recording. As electronics have gone from analog tape recordings to digital media files, music and movies got swept up in waves of theft because those files played on devices that could be connected to a vast file sharing network. Meanwhile, books did not have a common electronic reading device until the Kindle and Nook.

I’m not sure I buy this narrative – recordings of audiobooks have been around for just as long as music files – do you know anyone who has ever stolen an audiobook? Now that the Kindle and Nook have been around for a while, have you ever heard of anyone using these devices to read troves of stolen books?

Is it possible that the difference is not in the technological trappings of the media, but in its emotional impact? Do music and movies move something in the soul that causes people to steal, because the enjoyment of the media is so irresistible? I doubt it, because there are emotionally gripping books as well as dull songs – I don’t think there’s a category of books that get stolen more often than others, other than the category where the title is a command to steal.

Maybe the reverse is true – perhaps movies and especially music are trivial fluff, not valuable enough to fear stealing, while books are weighty, too precious to steal. Price may provide a clue here: a hit song is now around a dollar, a movie around ten dollars, and a new digital book is ten to fifteen dollars. Perhaps the market is validating the theory that books are more valuable, more emotionally compelling, and therefore harder to steal casually. But I doubt this too – there are a lot of crap books out there, and you can learn more from a three-minute record baby than you ever did in school.

Is it the audience?

Maybe the people who enjoy books are different from the people who enjoy music and movies; or at least, they’re different when they’re enjoying books, even if they’re the same people.

Viewing unauthorized download of copyrighted files as “theft” or “stealing” requires a certain conception of a moral universe. Many books, especially novels, convey some sense of moral order, or even when conveying moral disorder the implicit contrast to a typical moral universe always exists. Maybe the people who enjoy reading books are people who believe in a particular kind of moral universe, one in which unauthorized downloading of copyrighted material is rightfully considered stealing. In short, maybe book lovers are better people, and don’t steal. Presumably under this theory, music lovers are dirty techno-hippies with no sense of right and wrong.

Or … maybe book lovers are just weird. The urge to possess books as a physical object is common enough that even obsessive collection is considered only a gentle madness. Possibly the act of stealing a digital file is simply unsatisfactory, as it doesn’t sate this need to possess the object – shoplifting a file just isn’t the same. While music lovers do have some notable examples of vinyl obsessives, this doesn’t seem as common as the book geekery is among bookworms.

Is it possible that book lovers simply have more to lose, being a smaller and almost by definition more educated (i.e. literate) class of people? Maybe music and movie lovers that are of the same social and economic class as book lovers actually steal music and movies just as infrequently as book lovers steal books?

Is it the industry?

The music industry was famously hostile and arguably stupid in its stance to file sharing, and Big Hollywood seems determined to replicate that stance regarding all the evils of the Internet. In contrast, the book industry seems scared, but oddly accepting of its fate, almost savoring the last days of their bygone ways, lounging on the beach languorously watching the tsunami roll in.

Or maybe the book industry is simply smaller than the music and movie industries, and so hasn’t spent the time and money to raise the hullabaloo that other media industries have raised. And being a smaller industry, maybe it’s simply more accepting of change.

Is it possible that the book industry isn’t in utter panic because they’re aware of the history of media cries of wolf, howls of inevitable doom that accompany each technological change, each of which result in more money and more opportunity? Maybe book publishers are relatively sanguine in the knowledge that they’re making higher profits than before the Internet ruined their industry.

This is all just semi-coherent rambling, but it’s a ramble that’s been rattling around my skull for a while now. I don’t really have a clue why people don’t steal books, or at least don’t seem to steal books in comparison to music and movies. I’m hoping one of the handful of readers who stumble across this post can point me to a better answer.

One thought on “steal this book

  1. Some comments to me by email (paraphrased):

    – Music lovers need a lot of music, and there is a lot of music out there. Even a voracious reader consumes fewer books than music lovers consume songs. The price/value ratio is better for books, so there’s less willingness to steal.

    – Music and films are more social and current. People talk about current music and movies; books hold a longer relevance. You might talk about books that are many years old, but rarely talk about really old music or movies.

    – Books are generally globally available when printed. This means one of the primary reasons for video piracy (sheer unavailability) is missing. Part of that is the natural language regionalization, of course.

    – Kindle books are more convenient than copying and usually pretty cheap.

    – Getting paper books into electronic format generally results in a poor read, so non-ebooks are generally not pirated.

    – People who like to read aren’t inherently “better” than people who read less.

    – The Authors Guild is just as ranty about copyright infringement as the MPAA, but they have less budget and their members seem to be more vocal about opposing and leaving the organization.

    Check out relevant posts by tech-savvy authors:

    John Scalzi on getting paid

    Charles Stross on ebook DRM


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s