A decade ago, the battle over music piracy exploded. Thanks to services like Napster, millions of songs were suddenly available at the click of a button, with no money being paid to the artist or record company.
What followed was an all-out war between the industry and many fans, involving lawsuits, threats, and clumsy, short-lived attempts to prevent copying of compact discs.
Ten years later, book publishers are wondering whether they are about to be involved in a similar war. Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are seeing sales grow, while Apple, Skiff and a host of other companies are introducing their own digital readers. More and more people are buying tablets that they can load with digital books from either official stores or free, illicit websites.
"We really are all trying to predict the future in many ways, and trying to figure out is the publishing industry ripe for the same kind of developments that occurred in the music industry," said Diana Barry, director of digital services with the Association of Canadian Publishers.
"People are considering various ways of tackling it."
Publishers generally welcome the emergence of digital readers, seeing the devices as another platform to reach customers and gain exposure for authors, Barry said. But as the music industry's battle has demonstrated, with digital technology comes the ability to copy, upload and share.
There is already a wide selection of pirated books online. Unauthorized copies of Margaret Atwood's latest novel, "The Year Of The Flood," were up on a few websites weeks before the book was available for download through Sony's online store. Some websites that specialize in unauthorized music files have added ebooks as well.
Some publishers favour the idea of embedding digital rights management, or DRM, technology to prevent ebooks from being copied and uploaded, Barry said, while others feel that having copies online can actually boost sales.
"They're driven by the idea that exposure and developing conversation around your book is actually going to increase sales potentially," Barry said.
It's not clear whether having pirated copies online can boost legitimate sales. U.S.-based O'Reilly Media is one of the few analyst companies to examine the issue. Using an admittedly small sample size (eight and 21 books in two separate studies), O'Reilly recently found that sales of some books increased after pirated copies showed up online. Other titles saw sales drop, however.
The effect of piracy on sales may depend on the popularity of the book or author. For little-known works, having free copies available online can provide much-needed exposure, argues one expert.
"The biggest challenge for most authors is obscurity, not piracy. It's finding a way for people to even learn of your book in the first place," said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Internet and e-commerce issues.
"(For some people), if they can get access to the book and like the book, they choose to either buy that one or perhaps they buy from the back catalogue because now they've discovered an author they really like."
The ebook industry already has some DRM features. Many online stores limit the number of devices to which you can download a book and some devices, such as the Kindle, use formats that cannot be transferred to another brand of reader.
But as the popularity of digital readers expands, will consumers be willing to accept limits on how they use books they've purchased? Geist thinks the answer is no.
"I think the expectation for many consumers, if these devices really do take off, is going to be for as much of a replication of what you can do with a real-space book," he said.
"That includes things like loaning. That includes the ability to read the book on the device of your choice."
Some of the major music labels experimented with DRM technology in 2003, embedding compact discs with programs that prevented the music from being ripped to computers. The move angered consumers, who wanted the right to make personal copies or transfer songs to portable players. The technology was also flawed, because some of the protected compact discs couldn't be played in car stereos or on computers. The industry backed off a year later.
Most commercial DVDs come with DRM technology that prevents copying, although it's pretty easy to find programs online that can easily get around the DRM.
The recording industry association in the United States has also stirred up controversy by suing fans for sharing music online. It's something Geist says has created "a real negative reputation among an entire generation," but the industry says it's necessary to drive home the message that people should pay for music they receive.
Barry says it's unlikely Canadian publishers would sue customers, but adds it's too early to determine what steps might be taken in a digital industry that is only now taking off.
"Compared to the music industry, I think in many cases the numbers may be entirely different and the demographics may be entirely different," she said. "Some of those variables will probably affect the amount of piracy and what gets pirated."