This is What Happens If You Illegally Download “Freakonomics”

Pretty regularly, we hear from readers who tell us they’ve come across a free (i.e, pirated) downloadable version of Freakonomics, either in PDF or audio form. This guy wrote to say that he wanted to give us a few bucks for our trouble.

For a variety of reasons, most of them stemming from the desire to not mistake a molehill for a mountain, I’ve pretty much ignored this subject. But apparently our publisher, HarperCollins, hasn’t. Check out this discussion started by a guy who got a letter of warning from his ISP, Cablevision’s Optimum Online, informing him that they (the ISP) had been informed by HarperCollins that the user had illegally downloaded Freakonomics.

Holy cow! On the one hand, I am surprised that HarperCollins is devoting resources to what I assume is a miniscule problem. On the other hand, I am impressed that HarperCollins is devoting resources to a problem that, as time goes by, may become substantial. I have a feeling that by the time we publish our followup to Freakonomics a few years from now, the percentage of downloaded copies sold, both PDF and audio, will be much higher than they were for the first book.

HarperCollins’s effort is reminiscent of the time when prosecutors went after users of Napster and other P2P networks. But it also reminds me of a couple of subtler interventions that have been employed when an act of wrongdoing, such as illegally downloading a book, is itself subtle. For instance, this incident that Levitt blogged about a while ago, in which a flight attendant announced to passengers that the airplane’s equipment had detected that someone still had a cell phone turned on. And also this blog post, about how the Scarecrow Effect can change behavior.

Judging from the anxiety level of the people in the forum discussion, it seems that our publisher’s approach may be similarly effective. Here is how one person on the forum responded: “I got an email from my ISP about 6 years ago saying they had knowledge of me downloading Spiderman. It was basically the same you thing you have there. Stupidly I replied back and told them to stay out of my buisines and quit tracking my shit. I never heard back. Of course I stopped downloading for quite some time after that.” Emphasis added.


I just finished my first semester of law school and I do not claim to be 100% right here, but there is definitely a gray area when it comes to WHERE the "crime" is committed. The individual states have their own laws with regard to claiming jurisdiction over people who are out of state, but copyright violation is a federal crime and the federal courts have jurisdiction. Would it be different if someone accessed a bank server and transferred money to a different account from a foreign country? Downloading from a local server (when out of the country) clearly wouldn't be illegal. When there's an open connection between 2 computers, isn't the crime being committed in 2 places? Again, compare it to an illegal bank transfer. If it's not illegal to steal from a foreign bank in Canada but it is in the US, how can one justify it by saying that since it was "committed" in Canada that one shouldn't be prosecuted?



Usually I disapprove this kind of threats.
Publishers now are eager to find a scapegoat, to sue him and to threaten the others. Well, I don't think that's going to help to achieve the objectives, which I consider to be greater profit.
Yes, I know that economists are saying that people respond to incentives. If RIAA is filing a suit againt 80 years old grandpa for downloading a song of the 60s, others logically should feel threatened. Well, technically it's true. But sales of Freakonomics won't increase because of measures taken to prevent its spreading via the Internet. Those who are interested buy it, those who are less interested (or less wealthy) download it. If you prevent the latter from downloading, they will either forget Freakonomics at all or find another means of reading it gratos, such as in a library or borrowing from a friend. The main consequence is that Freakonomics would suffer a loss in popularity because of an aggresive campaign against pirates and since pirates would stop advertising Freakonomics itself. No book can become popular without people reading it and telling to their friends how good it is...



Conversely, Cory Doctrow believes that giving away electronic copies of his works actually improves sales.


When you toss around words like "illegal", remember that not all of your blog readers are in the U.S. In Canada, it's perfectly legal to download music for personal use from the web or file-sharing networks and, I'll assume, the same applies to books. I often download songs first to listen to them, then bought a CD (with its better-quality audio) if I liked the songs.

I already own a hardcover printed copy of Freakonomics (and have bought others to give as gifts), but out of curiosity, I decided to see how hard it was to find the book online. I opened my printed copy at random, picked a relatively uncommon phrase ("when Kennedy infiltrated the Klan"), and typed it into Google in quotation marks. The third hit looks like a PDF version of Freakonomics, though the site isn't responding right now.

I imagine that it would be much easier to find a copy of file-sharing networks like Gnutella or Bittorrent. I like the idea of sampling books on screen first (not the pages chosen by the publisher, but parts of the book *I* choose), then buying the paper copy for actual reading.



The big problem with the suing tactic of the publishing firms is that the risk of getting caught is ridiculously small. It is far smaller than the risk of dieing while driving a car. People still drives cars and they will also continue to download stuff from the Internet unless the risk become too high.

The court system wouldn't have a chance in hell to cope with that many suing actions at once.


It is moral for me to go down to the library and borrow a free copy of Freakonomics, read it, and not send you a penny.

But If I choose to download a copy and read that for free instead, that's wrong?

Strange times.


I admit it - I logged onto my library account, downloaded the audio book for free, listened to it (over and over) and then let the loan "expire." The difference is, the library paid for that audio recording, it's documented by somebody, somewhere.

If I were to've downloaded it from some web-based piracy bloke, I don't know it was ever paid for and that just doesn't sit right with me.

I think Santa has a BnN hard copy waiting for me though. :)


Anyone else notice that it is mostly the millionaire super stars and billion dollar corporations complaining about piracy while the struggling guys and smaller independent groups tend to support it?

I'm in a band. I wish we have enough fans so that we had a piracy problem. Maybe then I could quit my day job.


This argument is crazy. When I was younger, my parents would make copies of cassette tapes they'd purchased and give them to friends. However, they think burning CD's is wrong.

It seems like the same thing as burning a CD, ripping a DVD, downloading a PDF of a book... It's all the same. Someone bought it, made copies, gave them away. The real question is where does the ownership of the item stop? If I pay for something, what are my rights to give it away?

tim in tampa

There are a great number of books I now own that I wouldn't own if I hadn't first downloaded the audiobook and found I came to enjoy the book.

I have three hours of commuting time every day. Audiobooks are really the only way I can read at my leisure, but I certainly buy any book I'm interested in enough to follow through to the end. I don't feel guilty about it, especially when it's a book I end up using in my class (and thus lead to selling 40 copies of).


What I wonder: Is there anywhere where one can buy the same thing as offered on file sharing networks? A simple PDF? I'm guessing people would be willing to pay for that (aldho I would expect to pay less: There is no printing, distributing, overhead for the shop owner, heating costs, personnel, and so in needed, so the PDF should be cheaper). But (AFAIK) the only choices now would be buying a hardcopy book, or download it in unofficial ways (I won't say illegal, since downloading isn't illegal, here in The Netherlands. Uploading is).
Publishers should realize that there is a demand for certain formats, and offer them themselves, or not be surprised if someone else does. Those formats are often without DRM, because those just give the least hassle: MP3's work (almost) on any device. No DRM'd format does that.
For the record: I bought Freakocomics (several times, for friends), and wouldn't read a whole book from a screen. But I'm really looking forward to a reader device with E-paper screen!



I'm not surprised by your publisher's diligence in fighting piracy.

Multiply the percentage of pirated Freakonomics (PP) by the entire stock of titles (ST) published by HC and you have the total piracy problem (Q). Multiply that by the average price of a HC book (AP) and the total revenue (TR) lost. This is hardly trivial.

(I leave you to figure what amounts to your lost royalties, but I imagine its no drop in the bucket.)

To paraphrase Ev Dirksen: a dollar here, a dollar there, pretty soon you're talking real money. Considering he was from IL you should know this by now.


I do think that the piracy problem at this point in the game is relatively small for Freakonomics. Almost no one really wants to read an entire book on a computer screen. I've tried it with public domain texts, and in one class this semester our "textbook" consisted solely of notes that the teacher posted online: it is painful to read like that. Plus Freakonomics, being data heavy does not strike me as a book that can be fully enjoyed as audio. Though I guess that once better e-book readers become available, piracy may pose more of a threat because it would be a more perfect substitute for the actual book.

However, it is pretty clear that individual law suits are not the way to handle this. The transaction costs are just too high, a publisher would probably be better off ignoring all except the main distributors otherwise it isn't cost effective. Whatever the solution is, first a legal, cheaper electronic alternative should be made available to capture some of the blackmarket "buyers" that the plan would deny access to.



I'm surprised that you are surprised. Harper Collins is owned by HarperMorrow Publishers, which is owned by News Corp (which, of course, owns Fox, 20th Century Fox, and other various media companies). It is also the company that wanted to charge me $150 for a ten word quote in a book - rather than admit that it was fair use - and the book was, of course, YOUR book!

Depending on your morals, you may want to get another publisher.


I think there are some terms that are misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused here:

1. "Illegal" - there is no single law that covers the entire planet Earth. What is illegal in one country may be absolutely legal in another.

2. "(Potential) loss" - that is the worst speculation initiated by the publishing companies.
I love books. I enjoy reading them - especially in the good old-fashioned way - on paper. Books bought from the bookstore (and I recently bought the Freakonomics)! Although I work and play with computers for many years, I don't like reading books from the screen, or even printed from the screen. I spend money on books and I intend to continue to do so. If I ever download a book (without paying for it), that would be if I don't want to buy that book ANYWAY (i.e. I am forced to read it, I just want to see a preview, etc.). That is a loss neither for the publisher nor for the author. They wouldn't have gotten a penny from me ANYWAY in those cases. The argument that a library already paid for the book doesn't hold - the library paid for a SINGLE copy that was read by tens or hundreds of people. All those people (that go to the library or download) do that because they don't want to pay for reading the book. And I must assure you that very small percentage of them would have paid, if the book was not available for free.
Same applies to movies and music. For example I sometimes like watching action movies. The problem with action movies is that very few of them are worth seeing and even fewer are worth paying for that. There are thousands of movies out there but I would never pay to see most them. On the other hand I am a big cinema-fan. I love going to the movies. The movies I like, I see in the theater - and pay for that. The movies I don't like (or expect not to like) I MIGHT see but would not pay for that ANYWAY. That's again NOT A LOSS for the movie producers.

The publisher's math usually goes like this:
"We estimate that last year 100 000 people downloaded our book/movie/album" and didn't pay for that. Considering an average price of 20$, our total loss is 20 x 100 000 = 2 000 000 $"
WOW! 2 000 000 dollars! That's a lot of money!

Does anybody really bothered to estimate how many of those 100 000 people would have really paid for the book/movie/album if they were not available for free?

And how about the downloads from poorer countries, where 20$ is an unthinkable price for such a thing (market price is usually times lower)?

My conclusion: there are people who pay for that stuff and there are people who don't - depends how their priorities are set. And the people, who don't pay, don't pay anyway. Therefore that cannot be accounted for as a potential loss.

Here are some other scattered thoughts that I have on this matter:
* I can buy a paper book and lend it to a friend but if I buy an e-book I am not allowed to do that. It is really difficult to grasp such an idea! A sane person just could not imagine that!
* Paper books cost more to bring on the market (paper, ink, warehouse, shipping, staff at the bookstore, etc.). E-books cost much less but still their retail price is equal or higher than the paper ones. I had excellent grades in Math in school but somehow I feel lost trying to figure out that equation...
* E-books are not available in widespread formats (PDF, HTML, etc). They are available only in some proprietary encrypted formats that are vendor-specific and cost money. Other than that the e-book readers try to enforce some very disturbing policies like for example: after I buy a book I can read it on a single computer! What if I have several PCs at home? What if I have a laptop and like to read on my long way to work? If you don't believe this, try checking the Microsoft e-book reader ;-)

Publishing companies used to make money on books, movies and music in the good old Internet-free days. Now they want to make more money. Instead of using Internet to market their products, they are trying to screw their clients. Well, if that's that case, I don't mind publishing companies being screwed from time to time ;-)



I illegally downloaded freakonomics directly into my brain at the bookstore. All the library copies were checked out. I did later purchase a paper copy, but I still have a copy in my head. I wonder how long it will be before I'll have to pay a fee to remember certain passages. Maybe just after they have brainwiping equipment at movie theaters so you can't remember any specific scene, just how you felt about the movie.
I mean being able to continuously replay movie scenes, book quotes and music licks back to yourself in your brain is just not fair to the poor struggling artist out there. The only fair use is paying for it every single time in every single format.


I've never seen anyone establish a link between peer-to-peer piracy and lost sales. At the very worst, it has a minimal negative impact, and at the best, it actually has promotional value.

Is the publisher going to start cracking down on people loaning it out to their friends and selling used copies as well?

Here's the lesson you should draw: clearly, there's a market demand for a digital version of Freakonomics. So rather than try to control the method of distribution and the way consumers can consume the content, doesn't it make more sense to give them what they want?

Put up a digital PDF or HTML version on this web site at a reasonable price (I'd say ~$5). That'll put a bigger dent in piracy than law suits ever will.


Great discussion and insight everyone - thanks!


Holy cats! For the record, I like to re-read many books, matter of fact, the more I like the book, the more often I read it. I started with the library audio book because...well, honestly, "Freakonomics" was getting about as much hype as that animated movie about a lion cub who would be king back in the nineties. I don't trust hype, so I check things out in "preview" fashion, typically from the library.

I have indeed went out deliberately to purchase many of the books I've read through the library. Maybe it's because I too prefer to preview things myself, rather than being dictated which pages I'll see/snippets I'll hear, etc, let alone tangibly, rather than on-screen.

Am I really the only Freak left who previews this way?


## dpm

I'm afraid you are incorrect. It is absolutely illegal to download a song without paying, even if it is for personal use. The "fair use" doctrine of the Copyright act doesn't apply here because by keeping the song you have essentially stolen the right to listen to the song as often as you like. Buying the CD is buying the rights to use it as you want. This is U.S. law, and I am assuming that you are not in the U.S. since you pointed out that the laws are different. But if you download from a server in the U.S., you have broken the law in the U.S. and can be tried in an American court (assuming there is enough desire to, literally, make a federal case out of it, which is unlikely).

#15 Zaphod

Your point is taken, but it is a bad one. You can tell all your friends about the best parts of the movie and how great the explosions were, but that doesn't amount to seeing it themselves. But if you download it and give it to your friends (or keep it) how can you justify not paying? Lots of people are involved in making the movie, distributing it, playing it in the theatre, making the popcorn that is wildly overpriced, and making the DVD. The entertainment industry WANTS you to remember the great music and cool movies so that you'll buy the CD (or buy the MP3s online) and they want you to buy the DVD so that you can watch it on your laptop when you're flying to Hawaii or whatever. I think you're being very melodramatic about it all. I will admit I have illegally downloaded music and movies, but those days are long over. I think that $1 per song is reasonable (especially when the CD you want is $17.99 and has 8 songs). It's the same with books. You get it from the library, read it and enjoy it and then you have to give it back so that someone else can have a chance to enjoy it. But since you didn't pay for it, you DON'T get the right to read it whenever you want, or highlight your favorite passages, or pull it off the shelf to show your friends the good stories. "Fair use" is paying fair value to someone for the chance to be entertained/inspired/stimulated by their work.