Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Scholarly Publishing and Piracy

Pirates vs. University Presses
It’s not exactly news that the Internet is a perfect tool for violating copyright. In book publishing, the big concern has been best sellers that can be scanned and uploaded, with the idea that there is a worldwide audience for the latest Harry Potter installment or Oprah recommendation. While most university press books don’t have quite that commercial appeal, they are finding that they can still be the targets of pirates.

Press officials don’t want to provide too many details about what they’ve found as they don’t want to encourage people to download free copies of monographs, as they can do now in some cases. But those involved with anti-piracy efforts say that university presses are now targets of a number of sites. In a particularly disturbing trend, some presses are reporting that pre-publication digital editions are ending up on these piracy Web sites, raising concerns about the need to better track who has access to such versions.

Princeton University Press has emerged as something of an expert on the issue — a distinction the press wishes it didn’t have. Over the summer, an author the press declined to identify informed the publisher that his book was being made available for downloading in its entirety on one of these Web sites. For several months, Princeton had a staffer focused on identifying piracy sites with its books, and following up with “take down” notices that threaten legal action for keeping the books up. Some of the Web sites take the books down, but then others pop up. Most of these sites operate outside the United States and take advantage of countries with relatively loose copyright laws, at least as applied to digital publishing.

Daphne Ireland, director of intellectual property for the Princeton press, said that in the last year, it has succeeded in having several hundred books removed from Web sites where they were being offered free, in violation of copyright. About a half dozen of those books were in Internet galley form.

While the press is pleased with the progress it has made, regular vigilance is required to find more violations of copyright, and they keep popping up, Ireland said. While Princeton now does these checks regularly, it realizes it is missing things. “We have a limited amount of time to dedicate to it,” Ireland said. “It’s a real black hole you can get into, trying to find them all.”

Ireland said that it is also important for presses to spread the word that such sites are not harmless and in fact hurt academic publishing. “We have to make our readers aware of the importance of university press publishing, and why they should not say ‘It’s OK for us to pirate this book.’ “

Some of the pirate sites themselves are proud of their role.

Peter Sunde, one of the founders of the Pirate Bay, a Swedish operation that is at the center of these disputes, said via e-mail that he doesn’t care if university presses are bothered by his organization’s actions. “If I say the world is flat, does that make it true?” he asked.

He said copyright was irrelevant because “we’re letting anyone share whatever they want with whomever they want. That’s it.... Blaming us for what people do is like blaming the people who build roads for helping people rob banks, for God’s sake.”

In an action that publishers consider long overdue, Pirate Bay is facing a lawsuit in Sweden — but while the university press world may have no sympathy, The Wall Street Journal reported that the start of proceedings featured a courtroom full of piracy supporters. In court, the Pirate Bay founders are arguing that they only operate a search engine.

Some university presses — along with other publishers — are trying to join forces to deal with the problem. The Association of American Publishers has helped a group of publishers jointly support the monitoring of pirate Web sites to identify violations. Edward McCoyd, who leads the effort for the association, said that while he did not want to release a list of members, university presses are involved. “We’ve found quite a bit of activity, including books from university presses,” he said. At this point, the pirate sites are going after “every sector of publishing.”

Peter J. Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said he expects the piracy issue to gain more attention in academic publishing. While fighting piracy is “labor intensive and expensive,” he said presses couldn’t ignore the issue or assume it wouldn’t hit them. He described the Princeton experience as “a jolt” to other presses.

“We have all operated for the last few years with the idea that online piracy was something that publishers of Tolkien or science fiction had to worry about, but who would bother with the specialized books coming out of university presses?” Now, he said, it’s clear that many will bother.

— Scott Jaschik

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