Preventing E-Book Piracy

Dec 3, 2015 | The Publishing Industry


I’ve noticed, through the metrics that I get through Google, that some people are coming to my site to find out about ebook piracy, since I wrote about it here. I do tend to waffle on a bit about piracy in general, so grab your parrot and peg leg, kids! Let’s talk about how you can prevent those nasty pirates from uploading your treasured works to the torrent site du jour. In short…


That’s right, dear friends! It is quite literally impossible, and I will happily stake my professional reputation as a web developer on that. Your ebooks cannot be protected from someone truly determined, if they are available for sale in any electronic format, anywhere online, and sometimes if they’re only available in dead tree format as well.

Let me explain.

Let’s say you have a book. That book has been uploaded to Amazon, and it’s available for sale through Amazon to all and sundry. Let’s also say that Amazon, through dint of some magic I’ve never heard of that likely breaks the laws of physics, has a system in place that guarantees 100% that no one will be able to copy that book once they buy it. The book can be read through their Kindle device, but that’s it. The file is encrypted or protected or something, so any copies are unreadable. It’s digitally watermarked so that every file delivered to every customer is unique, and, if they allow their copy to be pirated, they’re guaranteed to be traced, arrested, and charged.

Do you think that your book wouldn’t turn up on a torrent site, in these circumstances?

You’d be absolutely, completely, 100% wrong. If you had a bestseller, and people wanted it enough, it’d hit every torrent site from here to Sweden inside a few days of release. All it would take is one individual with time on their hands to buy a copy, open it on their Kindle, and type the text out into their word processor of choice. From there, it’s a few hours work at most to compile it into any desired digital format, with no encryption, no protection, and no restrictions on copying. That watermarking, or tracking? All gone, unless there’s a modification to the actual text of your work.

Let’s say there IS a modification to the text of your work. There would have to be a unique modification – a different word, or a typo, or a miss-spelling, for example – for EVERY copy sold. (You’d also have to be okay with a computer program changing words, grammar and punctuation at random in your book.) This system would work for the very short time that pirates are unaware that such a tracking system is in place, because all they’d have to do is figure out the algorithm that generates the modifications, and reverse it. This kind of textual analysis has been done by programmers for years, and it’s almost trivial.

I am really not kidding about this. The most well known example is Harry Potter, obviously -Rowling was famously unwilling to allow her books to be made available in digital format for years, so ebook copies of Harry Potter were all pirated, and all available freely. The fans literally bought the paper books, typed them by hand or scanned them through OCR, and turned them into the ebooks that everyone wanted.

That’s what I mean when I say that ebook piracy can’t be prevented. Asking for it to be stopped is asking for the impossible, from a technical standpoint. Now, all this said, if you DO discover your books have been made available on pirate websites (and this honestly bothers you), then a DMCA takedown notice for sites within the US is still the only real way you’ll get satisfaction. For sites outside the US, such as The Pirate Bay, you might as well shout down the drainpipe in your kitchen sink. You can email and ask them to remove it, and that’s about all.

Then you’ll likely get to rage a little bit more when some other user uploads a fresh copy a day later. Such is the price of popularity.

Anyway, I don’t want you to fret too much. Mostly I want to impress upon you that it’s just not worth getting angry about. To use a rather silly analogy – it’s like rain. You can use an umbrella to keep yourself somewhat dry, but the only real way to avoid getting wet at all is to stay indoors and never go outside.

And asking someone to make the rain stop because you’re tired of getting wet is just bonkers.

For more of my opinions on piracy, check out a few other articles here.