Why Winning A $7,000 Piracy Lawsuit Could Be The Worst News Ever For Book Publishers

Earlier this week, the book publishing industry hit a milestone. For the first time ever, a publisher successfully sued consumers for pirating books via BitTorrent. As a result of the lawsuit, a pair of New York residents will pay $7,000 in damages to John Wiley and Sons, the company that puts out the "For Dummies" series of instructional books. 

Sound familiar? With this litigation, Wiley borrowed a page from the playbook of the music industry, which became notorious a few years back for suing people for illegally sharing songs. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) eventually backed down from some of its most aggressive litigation after it became clear the strategy was doing little more than angering the most avid, dedicated music fans. Despite the epic failure of the RIAA's approach, worried book publishers are now beginning to think lawsuits can help them slow the bleeding of a business that is - like the music industry before it - being radically upended by digital technology. Let's hope this small victory for book publishers doesn't send the industry on the same disastrous path taken by the music labels.

Piracy Is A Fact Of Digital Life

Like music and movies, e-books get pirated. But that doesn't mean suing everyone you can find is the only possible response.

You can, for example, search for Tim Ferriss's bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek on the Pirate Bay and, within minutes, have a fresh copy sitting on your hard drive, ready to be transferred to your e-reading device of choice. Unlike Wiley and Sons, though, Ferriss has no plans to hunt down those unauthorized downloaders and haul them into court. Instead, he's teaming up with BitTorrent

Before we go any further, an important distinction needs to be made. BitTorrent, Inc is a San Francisco-based company that develops the official BitTorrent desktop client and generally serves as the public evangelist for the popular peer-to-peer file-sharing technology its cofounder Bram Cohen created in 2001. The company itself has little control over how the protocol is actually used in the wild. Frequently, as we're all well aware, the use case involves content piracy. It's a reputation BitTorrent, Inc is trying to shed.

Using BitTorrent To Promote - Not Steal - Content

Last month, the company formally teamed up with Ferriss to help him promote his new book, The 4-Hour Chef. The partnership gave Ferriss prime visual real estate on BitTorrent.com, his grinning mug slapped across the homepage of a site to which more than half a million people navigate to download the BitTorrent client everyday. It's the sort of exposure that would cost big bucks to buy. 

The campaign's call to action - to adopt the parlance of Internet marketers - wasn't just to buy his book on Amazon, although that was undoubtedly its goal. To help whet their appetites, users were prompted to download a bundle of free content offered exclusively through BitTorrent. If you weren't sure if you wanted to pay for a copy of The 4-Hour Chef, perhaps a sample chapter, behind-the-scenes videos and supplementary notes would help convince you. 

Since debuting in November, Tim Ferriss's BitTorrent content bundle has been downloaded more than 1.4 million times. While one should always be careful not to draw logically shaky conclusions about causation, it's hard to imagine that the promotion didn't help drive The 4-Hour Chef up the bestseller charts at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly, at least a little bit. It also didn't hurt that Ferriss was already a well-established, bestselling author.

This time around, though, Ferriss was looking for all the marketing and promotional help he could get. Rather than going with a traditional publisher, he had signed on with Amazon's new publishing arm. The move was frowned upon by already-beleaguered bricks-and-mortar booksellers, many of whom refused to carry Ferris's latest title. With this huge disadvantage in mind, he approached BitTorrent, whose previous experiments in content promotion (mostly with musicians) had generated some impressive numbers. 

Whether those download numbers translate directly into revenue for creators remains difficult to prove. Does the extra exposure of BitTorrent (and potential payoff if a formal partnership is involved) outweigh revenue lost to piracy? Again, hard to say. BitTorrent, Inc is hoping that experiments like Ferriss's will help answer those questions. In many ways, the future of the book publishing industry could rest on which piracy response they choose to follow: Tim Ferriss or John Wiley and Sons.