Will Interactive iBooks Be The Next Big Booty For Pirates?

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With the shift from print books to digital books come a few nasty side effects. Sure, it’s much easier to acquire and read books when you don’t even have to get out of your chair, but those digital copies can be cracked and disseminated for free with only a little more effort.

As ebook sales expand, so does ebook piracy, so I have to wonder if Apple’s concerted efforts in creating a new kind of iBook experience will open them up to unwanted attention from digital pirates.

Apple certainly wouldn’t be alone in the fight. “Most publishers have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their anti-piracy efforts,” Tom Allen, President and CEO of the American Publishers Association told me. “They take time, money, and personnel away from nurturing creative talent.”

Of course, it’s not just the big-name publishers and the best-selling authors who have to deal with this. I spoke briefly with Rick Tannenbaum, who operates a small publishing firm called Hen House Press in upstate New York. They publish around a dozen books per year, and although they’ve attempted to use DRM to prevent illicit copies from making the rounds, nothing seemed to work.

“I guess if I were a large corporation I’d have the resources to do something about it, but I’m not,” Tannenbaum told me.

Apple has taken steps to simplify the iBook creation experience with the introduction of their iBook Author application, which allows users to create rich interactive experiences (if they want to) without too much needless fiddling. With tools like that available (and a little luck) we may soon see some impressive new works coming from authors of all stripes.

Could those richer media experiences become the next target for the web’s scores of ebook pirates? Very possibly, if only because it presents an interesting new obstacle for them to surmount. There are already tools available that can transfer Apple’s existing iBooks from the iDevice in question to a computer, which isn’t much of a problem considering they’re all stored in the common ePub format. I fully expect something similar to pop up in the coming weeks and months that allows less-than-scrupulous users dump these new iBooks and share them with others.

As they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

But would that really be such a bad thing? The iTextbooks in particular present a unique case here — when I was in college, some students would split the cost of a textbook and make photocopies of chapters and assignments as needed. As long as they had enough dimes on hand, each student got away with an education of sorts and still only paid a fraction of the cost of a single textbook. That sharing mentality exists outside of the scholastic realm for sure, and if more people learn by being exposed to a shared iBook, isn’t the end result a net benefit?

It depends on who’s asking. As my colleague Matt notes, Apple and their partners aren’t in the business of educating people — they’re here to make money. A smarter, entertained audience is a just a handy side-effect of selling more books, be they digital or not. Someone like Tim O’Reilly sees it a little differently. His company removed the DRM from all of their books’ digital editions last year, and noted that they were “delighted when people who can’t afford our books don’t pay us for them, if they go out and do something useful with that information.”

In the end, there will be very little Apple can do to stop piracy. Look at the long history of iOS jailbreaks and unlocks — while not piracy per se, they illustrate rather nicely that there will always be people willing and able to throw Terms and Conditions to the wind to get what they want. The same applies to Apple’s iBooks — just as there will always be people who would pay to enjoy the frictionless purchase of a book, there will always be people who enjoy the thrill of getting things for free too much to resist.