September 5, 2013

German publishers sue newspapers for just mentioning an e-book pirating site


How far are German publishers willing to go in their efforts to clamp down on the e-book piracy? Pretty far, it turns out.

A group of German publishers filed suit last week against the newspapers Der Tagesspiegel and Die Zeit for printing the name of a website that sells pirated versions of e-books. At the risk of getting sued by Germans ourselves—but on the principle that calling things by their name is a crucial part of freedom of speech—the site is TorBoox, whose home page boasts the gnomic slogan (in English): “To learn how to find, one must first learn how to hide.”

Der Taggespiegel had run an interview on August 25th with a representative of TorBoox, which claims to be the largest ebook piracy site in Germany, with 1.5 million books downloaded monthly. And Die Zeit had republished the interview, thereby making it, too, complicit in copyright infringement, as the publishers alleged in a criminal complaint against both papers.

The operators of TorBoox were unfazed. From an article about the case on TorrentFreak:

Speaking with TorrentFreak, the admin of says he was “enthusiastic” when he learned of the criminal complaint, but the best was yet to come.

“Soon people found out that the online magazine of the German Book Publishers Association had itself published the complete URL of the site. Well, then there was just laughter and tears,” Spiegelbest told us.

The complaint is now effectively toothless, but the whole brouhaha reflects broader debates about what constitutes copyright infringement, and, undoubtedly, also how vulnerable publishers feel towards e-book piracy. This comes a couple of months after German researchers debuted a new form of DRM, blogged about here on MobyLives, which aimed to discourage piracy by actually changing the text of each book, so that no two copies are alike: a form of digital watermarking which far oversteps the level of control anyone other than the author and the editor of a book should have.

But the really crazy part about this is that German publishers are fighting tooth and nail to defend a market that is still tiny: a recent study by the market research firm GfK found that e-books accounted for only 2.4% of German books sales in 2012. This is usually attributed to a greater, culture-wide skepticism about e-books, which has also led to fewer new titles being issued as e-books and fewer titles from publishers’ backlists being digitized.

However, if TorBoox’s numbers are legit, it suggests there’s a greater demand among German readers for e-books than other agents in the chain—publishers and booksellers—are willing to acknowledge. I am no fan of piracy—legitimate bookselling being the only way I get to eat falafel, drink beer, and generally stay alive—but sometimes piracy points to business that legitimate operators can make their own. It would be time better spent than suing newspapers, for one thing.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.