Digital pirates illegally downloading millions of popular books, study finds

By Steven Levingston

More than nine million copies of popular books were illegally downloaded last year, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, conducted by the online monitoring and enforcement service Attributor, highlights the drain from piracy on publishers revenues and the need for more effective protections online for copy-righted material.

The report focuses on the illegal downloads of 913 popular titles in their digital format, finding that on average each titles was downloaded without payment about 10,000 times.

"This new study confirms that book piracy on the Internet has reached epidemic proportions," said Tom Allen, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, in a statement. "Unchecked, that piracy will drain the creative energy of American publishing. Those 9 million pirated books should be a call-to-arms for policymakers, educators, and every reader who cares about the future of digital and printed books."

The study examined 14 categories to capture a representative sample of the industry, including business and investing, health, mind and body, fiction and reference. Business and investing titles suffered the highest number of illegal downloads, averaging 13,000 copies per title, with a potential loss of more than $1 million on each title, Attributor estimated. Popular fiction titles averaged about 6,000 illegal downloads each.

"Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, for example, was pirated 1,132 times from just one of the hosting sites. Attributor would not release total individual numbers. In fiction, "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown was pirated 8,177 times from one site.

The free downloads added up to a potential loss overall to the book publishing industry of $2.75 to $3 billion, the study said. Attributor, based in Redwood City, Calif., monitored piracy of the 913 titles at 25 file hosting sites including,, and

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 14, 2010; 11:24 AM ET Steven Levingston
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While some piracy may very well lead to a loss in sales, just as many of the pirates probably would've either not read the book at all, or borrowed it from a library.

I'd also be interested in the role of format in relation to piracy. A book doesn't change words depending on the format. But you're still expect to drop $25 on a single book (more for those business and technical books spoken of). If the publishing industry wants to compete with the other entertainment industries in a country where reading as a past-time is on the decline, maybe they ought to look at the ridiculousness of hardback pricing. It's not like you get a choice when the book comes out - you either buy hardback, or nothing. I can buy a blu-ray DVD for cheaper than a hardback.

It's a logical fallacy to claim that piracy is a "loss" in sales, since some (if not many) of those sales would never have occurred anyway.

Posted by: overquoted | January 15, 2010 12:25 AM


Posted by: silviamtez | January 15, 2010 12:41 PM


Posted by: silviamtez | January 15, 2010 12:42 PM

Agreed, overquoted . Not only do they not consider the pirated copies that would not have otherwise led to sales, they also don't count the number of sales that are because of "piracy". Particularly when it's a prolific author writing multiple books. Pirate Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, suddenly your a fan and you potentially purchase the next 4 books. One "stolen" copy results in 4 sales. I doesn't take an economist to see a net benefit. I won't even go into the spin off benefits of speaking engagements, sponsor opportunities, etc, that the author benefits from because of the increased exposure/publicity due to piracy ... oh ya, maybe they're not talking about benefiting authors, but it's the greedy publishing houses that get hurt.

Posted by: djmaynard | January 15, 2010 3:33 PM

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