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.

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  1. rytis says:

    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…

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  2. rytis says:

    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…

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  3. broonie says:

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

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  4. broonie says:

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

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  5. dpm says:

    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.

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  6. dpm says:

    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.

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  7. yxhuvud says:

    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.

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  8. yxhuvud says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0