Publishers Ask File-Sharing Sites to Help Stop Book Piracy

January 20, 2010

A group of publishers is stepping up its fight against pirated textbooks, study guides, and trade books by trying to convince the most popular file-trading sites to install filters or take other measures to stop unauthorized copies of books from appearing on their services.

But will asking nicely spur companies that have not previously adopted such publisher-friendly practices to change?

A committee of the Association of American Publishers spent the past several months drafting a set of "recommendations for best practices." The group plans to meet with several file-sharing Web sites in the next few weeks to present the recommendations, said Ed McCoyd, the publishing group's executive director for digital, environmental, and accessibility affairs.

"The thrust of this is that if they want to run a business, they should do everything they can to make sure the main activity on their site is legal and not infringing," Mr. McCoyd said of the file-sharing sites.

He declined to share the draft recommendations because officials are still making final changes in their wording. But the highlights of the document were published in the latest edition of the publishing group's newsletter.

The group recommends that file-sharing sites should:

  • Install filters to block copyrighted material from being posted.
  • Send warning notices to users who post copyrighted material, telling them that such activity is illegal.
  • Create and enforce policies that disable the accounts of users who repeatedly post copyrighted material.
  • Provide links to sites that offer legal methods of buying electronic books.
  • Give publishers lists of books that have been blocked or removed from their sites.

Convincing file-sharing sites to take those actions may be a tall order, though. The sites are advertising-based, and kicking off users who post illegal materials would reduce the sites' numbers of visitors and page views, and possibly their advertising revenue.

Mr. McCoyd said the plan is to encourage full adoption of the guidelines. "All of the best practices would need to be adopted to really make a difference," he said.

Officials at several of the most popular file-sharing sites did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday.

One company, Scribd, a document-sharing Web site, has already met twice with the publishing group, though it has not yet received the new recommendations.

"Scribd has some of the best practices, if not the best practices, in the industry regarding copyright management for written works," Michelle Laird, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mail message.

Scribd already posts a policy stating that any "repeat infringer" will be barred from the site. Ms. Laird did not say whether the company plans to follow all of the group's recommendations.

Collaborative Approach

Maria Danzilo, legal director for John Wiley & Sons Inc., which has participated in drafting the new guidelines, said the group is "trying to come up with something that is collaborative" with the file-sharing Web sites. "The whole point of these best practices is to really try to come up with a way of encouraging cooperation between various interests," she said.

Wiley has two full-time staff members assigned to search online for pirated editions of the company's books, Ms. Danzilo said, and they see all kinds of titles on file-sharing sites. One category popular with pirates is study guides for textbooks, which are intended for professors but can be used by students to cheat on their homework.

Findings of a study released last week by Attributor Corporation, which helps companies search for pirated works, showed widespread availability of a sample of books it searched for on 25 file-sharing sites. The most popular books of the sampled set among pirates were those dealing with business and investing, with professional and technical books coming next. The study did not analyze textbooks as a category.

The vast majority of the pirated copies appeared on two sites, RapidShare and 4shared, the report found.

What if those companies and others choose not to adopt the publishers' guidelines?

"There is a serious threat of liability for file-sharing sites if they can't get control of illegal activities that are going on," said Mr. McCoyd.