BOB GARFIELD: This weekend marks the release of the final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Thousands of fans waited in line all night outside of bookstores to get their copy, but really they didn't have to. A quick search on the file-sharing network BitTorrent could have spared them the trouble.
Despite Scholastic's draconian security measures, photos from every page of the 700-page tome were posted on the Internet and quickly spread. The incident suggests that reading pirated books online could be a growing concern for Scholastic and everybody else in the publishing industry.
David Bell is professor of history at Johns Hopkins and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences there. He also writes for The New Republic and has been following the developing e-book phenomenon. Professor Bell, welcome to the show. DAVID BELL: Thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: Well, music piracy has been the bane of the music industry's existence for the past six or seven years, and as bandwidth and hard drive space increase, movie piracy is becoming an increasing issue for Hollywood. Is this just the beginning of the next kind of piracy nightmare, electronic book theft? Why hasn't it been an issue to date? DAVID BELL: Well, it hasn't been an issue for two reasons. One is that making a copy of a book is much more difficult than making a copy of a song on a CD or even making a copy of a movie, because you actually have to scan it page by page - very tiresome - and you have to have at least one person to do this.
But it's also been a problem because, of course, reading on a computer screen is not all that pleasant an experience for most people. But the technology is changing, so it is getting easier for people to read things in electronic form.
There are these new devices that use what is called electronic ink, which is actually much more pleasant to read on. And I think as these things improve, it is going to get more popular, and then the question of pirated books is going to become more important as well. BOB GARFIELD: So much has been made of the intimacy of book reading and the sensory experience of turning pages and smelling the pulp, but an equal argument has been made that young people are simply used to doing everything online and that the old way of doing things will be irrelevant to them. What's your prediction? DAVID BELL: Well, I think there's something to both sides of this, of course. There are always going to be people who are only comfortable reading books on paper, smelling the pulp and handling the object, as you say.
I do think college students today, they are made to read more and more things online. They're more comfortable with it, even if they would probably prefer a physical book.
I think in addition, there's a great convenience to some of these devices. I mean, if you take something like the Sony Reader, which is the e-device which has been the most popular one so far, you can put 80 books on it, or, with a little memory card, you can put hundreds of books on it, and it weighs less than a pound - you put it in your briefcase and you can take the whole library with you on vacation.
So there's no reason why these two things can't coexist. The e-book doesn't have to supplant the paper book. BOB GARFIELD: Well, at the moment, how big is the legal e-book industry? Has it made any kind of impact? DAVID BELL: Only a very, very small one so far. There's something called Mobipocket, which is based in France. Sony has its own store, called the Sony Connect store. In fact, this winter, Sony announced that it was actually doing a greater money volume in books than it was in music through its store, although that's probably more a testimony to the fact that its music store can't compete with iTunes.
Amazon is said to be developing an e-book reader of its own and then trying to work out deals with the publishers who sell books through it. If that happens, this could really explode. BOB GARFIELD: Now, at the risk of sounding self-righteous here, I would not click to get a free sneak peek of Harry Potter because it's just, you know, it's wrong. But, you know, I've noticed that college students don't necessarily [LAUGHS] have the same calculus. Their music file downloading is, you know, clearly out of control.
What do you think about your students? Do you think they would feel any compunction whatsoever about taking an illegal peek at Harry online? DAVID BELL: Well, I don't want to generalize about all of them, but I would certainly say there that would be quite a few of them who would see it in much the way they would see driving 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone. They would say something on the order of what the defenders of Napster said back when there was the first big crisis with the music industry - namely, these are huge corporations that have tons of money, and we don't really think we're hurting them, so what's the harm? BOB GARFIELD: So the pirated Harry Potter, now available on the Internet at a mouse-click or two, have you read it? DAVID BELL: [LAUGHS] I haven't read it. I'm going to wait for my paper copy to come. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: All right, well David, thank you so much for joining us. DAVID BELL: Well, thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: Professor David Bell is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]