Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Harry Potter Leak - Piracy or Protest?

In case you're living in a cave, you've heard by now that the new Harry Potter book, set to be released in bookstores this Friday, was leaked onto the internet. Is this a case of anarchism and piracy, or hacktivism and protest?

Here's the rub. Author J.K. Rowling decided ahead of time to go against the trend of the publishing industry and not to release an e-book version of the novel, fearing piracy. However, not only did that action fail to prevent rampant piracy, it actually made loyal Pottermaniacs angry at not being able to buy a copy legally. Here were scores of people anxious to drop down their hard-earned money to buy the e-book legally, but told they could not. They consequently "scanned in, [ran] through optical character recognition software, proofread and posted" the book, having coordinated anonymously through IRC channels.

Now the big question is how do we classify such actions? Is it outright illegal piracy, or is it a form of protest action? The answer is both. Publishing scanned pages of the original book is a clear violation of copyright law, yet people doing so despite the law is a clear case of electronic civil disobedience in direct response to the official e-book not being made available. Just as with other forms of protest, certain individuals are willing to break the law to make a symbolic statement about their perceived mistreatment. But make no mistake, they broke the law.

Bruce Schneier makes a great point that "anyone fan-crazed enough to read digital photographs of the pages a few days before the real copy comes out is also someone who is going to buy a real copy". I don't think any reasonable person could suggest that leaking this book on the internet two days before its release is going to greatly affect sales. If anything, it will only add to the pre-release hype. That may be the most significant lesson lost in all of this: "piracy" (a.k.a - "file sharing", depending on who's framing the issue) is actually an extremely beneficial marketing tool that should be embraced, rather than feared, by copyright owners.

And how many people are reading 600 page novels on electronic devices anyway?
  

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