Millions Seek Pirated E-Books? Tech Blogger Hellman Begs to Differ

Physicist and tech blogger Eric Hellman has an annoying habit of knocking his knuckles on assumptions to see if they are hollow.  In a blog recently posted on his go to hellman website (See Attributor eBook Piracy Numbers Don’t Add Up) he tapped his knuckles on a statement made by Attributor, a leading company in the field of monitoring unauthorized use of copyrighted material, and he didn’t like the sound it made.

We wrote up Attributor a while back (See Attributor Badge Proclaims Your E-Book is Kosher) and reprinted its assertion that “Daily demand for pirated e-books can be estimated at 1.5-3 million people worldwide.”   Our guts told us it sounded right.  It sounded credible.

But Hellman begged to differ. He begged to differ by 90%.  Relying on Google Trends, AdWords  and keyword search data plus analysis of some other metrics, Hellmann said he considered “…the truth to be about 10% of the number they claim.”

“All in all,” he wrote, “I estimate that about 210,000 searches made on Google per day represent possible interest in pirated ebooks. About 30,000 of these come from the US. The ‘real’ number for all countries could be as high as 300,000 or as low as 100,000. The 1.5-3 million numbers reported by Attributor are not within the range of plausibility.”

When Attibutor stood by its original figures Hellman crunched the numbers again and produced a second article entitled Consumer Interest in Pirated eBooks is Even Lower Than I Thought. We asked Attributor CEO Jim Pitkow to comment and he wrote us as follows:

“Our study’s rigorous methodology ensured highly accurate results that align with actual consumer behavior. We analyzed 89 titles, using multiple keyword permutations per title, across different days of the week, with very high bids to ensure placement – each of which is fundamental in guaranteeing accuracy and legitimacy. Each of these variables impact the findings, and analyzing all variables together produce highly accurate results. We stand by our research, and we’re confident that the study addresses an accurate portrayal of the consumer demand for pirated e-books.”

So now what?

Hellman’s arguments are compelling and for all we know he is technically correct. But they don’t take into account the less quantifiable but devastating damage wreaked by piracy: the culture of entitlement, the climate of outlawry, the institutionalization of copyright ignorance and disrespect, the bleeding of profits, and the toll that piracy exacts on the incentive of artists and musicians and writers to create and sell their work. There is also a leverage factor to be considered: one successful customer search for a torrent pirate site can yield a trove of thousands of stolen e-books such as the one we displayed recently (See A Bootleg E-Book Bazaar Operates in Plain Sight).

So, even if one is willing to grant that Attributor based its claim on ambiguous stats, we still believe with bedrock certainty that piracy represents the Number One threat to the success of the digital book industry. You can knock your knuckles on that one until they bleed, we won’t change our minds. Nor do Hellman’s cogently reasoned arguments mitigate our support for Attributor’s goals and activities on behalf of aggrieved copyright owners.

For in-depth coverage of piracy visit our Pirate Central page regularly.

Richard Curtis

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7 Responses to Millions Seek Pirated E-Books? Tech Blogger Hellman Begs to Differ

  1. madhaus says:

    Shorter Richard Curtis: I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with facts.

  2. “Hellman’s arguments are compelling and for all we know he is technically correct. But they don’t take into account the less quantifiable but devastating damage wreaked by piracy: the culture of entitlement, the climate of outlawry, the institutionalization of copyright ignorance and disrespect, the bleeding of profits, and the toll that piracy exacts on the incentive of artists and musicians and writers to create and sell their work.”

    Have you consulted any studies on the music industry? “those who download music illegally are also 10 times more likely to pay for songs than those who don’t.”
    http://musicindustryreport.org/?p=7800

    The fearmongering about piracy is in fact one of the things fueling it: most book piracy at this point appears to be due to non-availability of appropriate formats due to rights issues or publisher unwillingness (itself partly fueled by fear).

  3. All these people quibbling about numbers are armchair generals far away from the front lines.

    Those of us getting our butts shot off at the front lines of publishing see the numbers from a very personal perspective.

    While the number of illegal downloads go up, many authors are seeing their sales go down. In an industry with a very small profit margin anyway, that really hurts.

    Meanwhile, the consumer pundits keep complaining about the prices of books being too high, but they are willing to pay three times what most ebooks cost to see a movie that doesn’t offer a third of the entertainment time.

    And, to Jodi, the music industry comparisons don’t work. You listen to a song many times so buying it makes sense. You read most books once so why buy it when you can get it for free.

  4. Eric Hellman says:

    Marilynn- I’m not a general of any sort. To use your warfare analogy, I’m more of an intelligence analyst, studying the spy satellite photos to get an estimate of the strength and location of the enemy. Any real general worth her brass would consider it essential to have accurate and reliable intelligence, so she can avoid needlessly getting her troops’ butts shot off.

  5. Marilynn, I want to be able to “search my brain”. Reasonably-priced digital copies would allow me to build a collection of everything I’ve read, so I could reference it at any time through searching, textmining and browsing. So I have started cataloging the books that I read, because I hope that DRM-free books will become standard in my lifetime–for mass markets and scholarly works alike.

    There are key books that I would give a lot to use in digital format–books like “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe”, which shows how changing from hand-copied manuscripts to cheaply produced printed books widened the market and supported new science. Copernicus’ revolutionary view of astronomy, for instance, was enabled by his ability to consult a shelf full of books and find discrepancies–rather than travelling to view manuscripts, or hand-copying tables to ensure that the numbers survived.

    Unfortunately it sounds like along with illegal downloads you’d like to outlaw libraries.

    Have you looked at the experience of publishers like Baen? Recently they gave away digital copies of the entire backlist as well as the newest hardcover book by major author Lois McMaster Bujold. They expect this to sell both print copies and digital subscriptions.

    Aside from other publishers, where do you look for repeatable experience? While I see that it’s not the music industry, I’ll mention EMI’s misstep. Analysts think that EMI’s sales would have been larger if they hadn’t dragged their feet when releasing Beatles albums digitally. Many fans are no longer interested, having already digitized their own copies (quite legally):
    http://blogs.reuters.com/columns/2010/11/16/emi-will-long-for-yesterday-on-itunes/

    Ignoring customers is a surefire way to make them go away — or to drive them to other sources.

  6. Rowena Cherry says:

    22 million users of Pirate Bay sounds like a sizeable number. I realize that they are talking about movies and music.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/nov/26/pirate-bay-founders-appeal

  7. Rowena Cherry says:

    That is, 22 million users **a month**

    “The trial began on 16 February, at a time when Pirate Bay boasted more than 22 million users a month.”

    Of course, it is possible that Pirate Bay boasts are as implausible as their justifications of what they do/did.

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