On 7 March GalleyCat reported on a discussion on book pricing on Reddit in which robthebob asked “Is it morally wrong to purchase a paper copy of the book and torrent the ebook?”

It’s really rather impressive that there are all these torrenting people out there who are interested in discussing the ethics of pirating books. There are a lot of fascinating comments. The consensus is that it’s OK to download a free ebook if you own a hardcopy, though of course lots of people will go beyond that. One reply says “Sticking it to the man: priceless”. We, the book publishing industry, are “the man” here, and I fear we are going to get it stuck to us a lot more in the future.

Behind the discussion lurks an assumption that there’s some platonically “correct” price relationship between a hardback, a paperback, and an ebook. This has to be nonsense, though it’s true that the publishing industry has behaved as if this were so for years. If you have a product for sale you should price it to generate the maximum revenue/profit. If you can incentivize purchasers of any edition through a lower price, and the difference will be made up in volume, go for it. The price should not be geared directly to the cost of manufacture (see Why do paperbacks cost less than hardbacks? below). If the ebook is priced higher than a paperback, this may be a signal to the marketplace that we’d prefer you to take more paperbacks off our hands, not that we’d like you to consider it OK to rip off our ebooks.

Flattr, a social micropayments site, is mentioned a couple of times in the Reddit discussion as a means of paying the author while torrenting the publisher’s file. Of course authors would have to set themselves up for this to happen. But we do actually have organizations that could do this already; The Author’s Registry, and perhaps even more suitable, The Book Rights Registry, which was established under the Google settlement to administer payments to authors for usage of books scanned by Google. Tracking the use of ebooks is the sort of thing the Internet can make possible. Though information may want to be free, its creators still seem to want to be paid. Could The Book Rights Registry take care of that? Whether publishers are an essential part of this whole process is another discussion.

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