Why don’t people care enough about literature to steal it?

Yesterday, Dubner was part of a Google event entitled “Un-bound: Advancing Book Publishing in a Digital World.”

Rebecca Lieb provides a fascinating write-up of the day’s events. I was particularly struck by the comment made by Cory Doctorow, “Why don’t people care enough about literature to steal it?” In a world in which illegal downloading of music is endemic, copyright violations on books are rare.

My guess is that the answer isn’t really about people not caring enough, but rather because so few people want to read electronic versions of books (where technology makes illegal file sharing very easy), and it is generally too costly for people to print and distribute illegal versions of paper versions of books. The fact that people will pay $25 for a book means they care enough to steal it, if there were just easier ways to steal.

(Although distributing illegal hard copies of books does happen — a friend of mine was in a car stopped in traffic in India and a young child knocked on the window of the car and attempted to sell him a pirated version of Freakonomics. I wish he had bought it — I would love to have one. If any blog readers have fake copies of Freakonomics, I will trade you an autographed copy of a real one for it, let me know.)

Other interesting comments at the event include Chris Anderson noting that the typical book only sells 500 copies in a year, and Seth Godin adding that nobody knowing your book exists is a good way of keeping it from getting stolen, and from selling it.


Well, I remember reading in the NY Times "Catch the Next Chapter on Your iPod (It's Even Cheaper)" (sorry I don't have a link since the article requires premium membership) saying how audio book files are doing so much better than electronic text versions of the book. Any data on the illegal downloading of the audio version of "Freakonomics?"


T: exactly what I was wondering.
Just limewired "freakonomics" and I'm now listening to a clip of cha 5 (didn't download the whole thing).


I was just in Peru, and almost every street corner (in the affluent parts of town), had people selling pirated copies of tons and tons of books.


I have seen a lot of book piracy going on, but the people I have seen downloading never read them. There are some non-US sites which offer downloads of books (including probably yours), but except for students, it quickly loses its "glamor" after the first few downloads.

The fundamental problem is that unlike music, you need to spend dedicated time to read the book instead of just passively listening. If you spend the money to buy the book, at least the sunk costs fallacy will force you to read the book.


Another data point: anyone unafraid of visiting Russian websites will find that lots of people care enough about comic books to steal them.

Why someone would be averse to reading low-res text on a screen, but excited to read low-res images and text is beyond me, but I think we can take the low-res out of the equation.


I think that there is a lot more emotion involved regarding this topic as opposed to opportunity. I think the people who actually buy a hardcover book during it's initial release, rather than waiting for the cheaper paperback version, have a strong attachment to the author or subject matter. They are more likely to want to keep the book as a part of their personal library and who wants fakes in any collecton?


This is easy. Music vs Books. People no longer read....

....unless they have to. I have a kid at college. Being an aetheist and thus of low moral character, I looked into downloading textbooks.

Let me just say this. If you publish a textbook, be very very scared.


My first introduction to Freakonomics was from a pirated version. Let me know where to send the pirated version.


At this point, you either have to read a digital book on a computer screen at your desk, wherever you can find adequate space/power for your lap top, or on a tiny hand held screen. I do most of my reading on the train to and from work or at night right before bed, neither of which is convenient for my laptop. Plus, I sit at a computer all day so the last thing I want to do when I get home is read more words on the screen. Another point is that reading a book takes a long time (for most of us mortals) and, digitally, that's all time that has to be spent on the computer. I think that's why magazines and newspapers have so successfully migrated online but not books. There still is a large behavior gap that has to be navigated before books will be extremely popular.

Textbooks, however, would be a different beast. I would have killed for digital textbooks back in college. Though then I couldn't have bought a used version that contained someone else's notes...


Vivek M.

I am a devoted reader of this blog, based in Goa, India.

I admit, for the first time with regret, that the Freakonomics copy on my shelves is the legit U.S. first edition hardback from William Morrow.

But pirated copies are easily available by the armful, a mere mile from where I sit. I'll happily buy and send one tomorrow morning, to satisfy Mr. Levitt's curiosity, (and get my hands on a signed copy in exchange).

Gleefully yours,


Mike T

I was introduced to Freakonomics through a pirated version on BitTorrent. There is a thriving subculture of folks who trade audiobooks both publicly and privately.


I think books have a higher perceived value. Songs are something you generally listen to for a little while, books we like to keep and display.


Books are indeed shared and quite popular, I think the biggest missing ingredient is a decent device to read them on. I have a Gemstar eBook reader, and it is "good enough" to satisfy my need, which is to bring a lot of reading material on long trips. But if I were only reading at home, I'd stick with paper. I have indeed downloaded Freakanomics, though I also own a paper copy and have given several more as gifts, so I don't feel guilty about having it on my eBook :)

As someone else noted, comic books are very popular for sharing (which i know since I work in the industry and we're ntoicing this more and more). Yes, the quality is lower than the original paper, BUT, it only takes a few minutes to read a comic book on-screen, AND comics have gotten very expensive in the past ten years, so much so that much of our college-age demographic can no longer afford to support their "habit". Downloading is an easy way for them to read the 75% of a huge crossover story that is published in books they don't follow regularly.

Our industry is definitely shifting the product we sell because of the price/piracy issue, by offering many more trade paperbacks (100-300 page compilations for $20 instead of single 20-page issues for $3). The popularity of those collections is skyrocketing while regular monthly issue sales are stagnant.

We don't have the clout of the music and movie industries, so instead of just getting the Congress to line up 12-year olds for us to sue, we actually have to solve the problem on an economic level by offering something that people consider a fair value for their money.



hi, I am a student and a through n through Bibliophile. I have a personal collection of about 500 books (mostly pirated copies), and a few gigabytes of 'em on my PC. and guess what, i dont mind sitting in front of PC, hours at end, reading 2nd part of Eragon. :D
besides, sony has develpoed this nifty ebook whose battery lasts for a set no. of 'page turns'...and the display doesnt strain ur eyes. (PC monitor doesnt strain my eyes either, 'i am digitally evolved' i guess :p)

apart from the emotional attachments and the smell of the sheaf (which only a minority of books accrue).. there is lil' incentive to buy originals.

So getting down to the 'my' basic economic...
i read atleast 7-8 books, in 3 months...
the pirated copies are not available in my city. But I visit Pune often, and it has lots of places where u can buy cheeeeap books.
i can get those 7-8 books at 15 to 20 $ ..lesser if u r good at bargaining. and with lil' pernickety perusal , i can get at par quality of print. I feel sorry, for ur loss of revenues, :p but if I start reading only originals, that means essentially cutting down on a 'lot' of reading.

p.s. i havent seen a hard copy of 'freakonomics' yet.. :D. but i have read it.

But i believe, u could really use this digital turn of events in ur favour. hey, how about on-demand chapters on cell..

all said, i guess i will start 'buying' books once i start earning... i am a daft hypocritical moralist.
i first read 'atlas shrugged' on a pirated copy. I loved it so much, that I actually went and bought original one (i am quite frugal, and hence its a big deal).. Hail Ayn Rand! \m/




that sony reader is like $350 bucks...


i just go to the library for books. my tax dollars is buying the books so might as well enjoy the free membership.

ebooks aren't pirated nearly as much as audio books or mp3s because there are no cheap ebook readers that are easy on the eyes.


The reasons behind the lack of pirated ebooks are the same reasons behind the lack of sales of ebooks.

Readers are too expensive or not as functional or portable as an actual book.

It has nothing to do with the content and everything to do with the medium.

As all of the above posts have mentioned, pirated audio copies of books are very common.

It's much easier to burn a copy of Freakonomics to cd and throw it in the car stereo.

Also, if we downloaded pirated books, what would I put on my bookshelves? :D


Not that I'm endorsing this, but:


And finally:


So the stuff is pirated, though it's dwarfed by music/movie pirates.

FYI - now that I've looked, I'm curious about getting the digital copy, such that I can search and quote it easier than the copy on my bookshelf. As the author, would you be particularly opposed to that?

Back on subject, I don't think that fiction gets pirated much - but technical books do. They're usually more expensive ($50-100) and more unwieldly - but it's mostly that there's a big crossover between people who need tech books and people sophisticated enough to pirate them.


We are practically, distributing keys to the strongbox of the dude, in whose house we are now having this discussion.
hmm.. awesome!
just curious, do steven n stephen indulge in censoring and stuff like that?
just for symbolical significance, actually.


I love buying books but they´re expensive to me, so what I do at times is buying used ones or at some fairs where they´re cheaper than in most book stores. I agree that technical books are much more expensive that fiction, I´m a lwyer and law books here in Argentina will have to wait until I have my own firm. Downloadable books are not really my thing, cause my eyes suffer enough already with my daily amount of internet surfing.


The pirate dude above who loves Ayn Rand made my day. That just about says it all.