The advent of new technology almost inevitably brings pronouncements of existing technology’s death. We have all heard that “Video Killed the Radio Star,” Napster killed the recording industry, and DVRs are killing advertising. Now add to this mix, a new murderer: Apple’s iPad.

One of the many features touted by Apple is the iPad’s use as an e-book reader. Using any number of available apps, iPad users can download entire books within seconds. With the number of books available for downloading expanding daily, Apple hopes to become the book distributor of the future. However, publishers have expressed concern regarding increases in e-book piracy, and some have pointed explicitly to Apple’s new iPad as the culprit.

The iPad is only the latest in a series of e-readers released in recent years, including Amazon’s “Kindle,” Barnes & Noble’s “Nook,” and Sony’s “Reader.”But, like its older cousin the iPod, many publishers see the iPad’s entry into the e-reader market as a real spark for e-book piracy, frequently citing one study that found a 78 percent increase in unauthorized e-book downloads the week after the iPad was released.

Publisher Jamie Rabb may be right when she says “[a]nyone who downloads a pirated e-book has, in effect, stolen the intellectual property of an author and publisher . . . to condone this is to condone theft.” This argument sounds very similar to the argument the RIAA has been making for the past decade, yet the RIAA’s fight on behalf of copyright holders has only demonstrated the futility of policing traditional copyright law in the digital age.

Until recently, the publishing industry remained immune from piracy problems due in part to the difficulty in digitizing entire books, coupled with a low demand for pirated e-books. Scanning and digitizing an entire book is difficult and time-consuming. But, the launch of so many new e-readers has also released a wealth of already digitized works into the market, avoiding the pirate’s need to scan or digitize the work themselves.

To try and combat piracy, the publishing industry has taken a play from the record industry’s playbook by including a variety of DRM technology in authorized e-books. However, DRM will never be able to win the electronic arms-race with online pirates, as their battle with the record industry has demonstrated.

Publishers have also adopted a practice known as “windowing,” where a publisher does not release an e-book version of a new release until some weeks after the hardcover has been released. Lastly, some publishers and authors, including J.K. Rowling, simply refuse to release e-versions of their works. Both these practices are simply a band-aid, and seriously risk alienating the ever-expanding base of e-reader consumers.

Publishers would be wise to re-examine their pricing structures. Who wouldn’t download a pirated copy when new release e-books cost as much as $14.99? Publishers need to find a pricing structure low enough to convince users to download the authorized e-book, while at the same time, allowing publishers to earn a reasonable profit. iTunes has struggled with this balance since its inception, and publishers most likely will too.

Ultimately, the iPad won’t kill the publishing star. As long as there is a demand for books, there will be authors to write them. But, it might kill the publishers.

- Michael S. Quinlan

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