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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.