The Epidemic of Online Book Piracy

When people think of unauthorized file sharing, they often focus on music, movies and TV programs, and software. Often forgotten is the magnitude of the illegal file sharing in the book publishing industry. A recent study published by Attributor documents what the Association of American Publishers calls an “Epidemic of Online Book Piracy”.

The study monitored piracy for 913 popular books across the most popular 25 file hosting sites starting in October 2009 for a period of 90 days. More specifically, the study captured the number of successful downloads completed for each of the 913 titles as reported on four file hosting sites that made the download data available (,, and Across these four sites, a total of 3.2 million downloads occurred. Across the top 25 one-click hosting sites, a total download figure of over 9 million copies was projected using the 36.4% share of online file downloading sites that the four above-mentioned sites represent.

On average, nearly 10,000 copies of every book published are downloaded for free, led by titles in the Business and Investing genre, which averaged over 13,000 free downloads per title.

According to Attributor, the retail value of these 9 million copies was calculated to reach $380 million. (Each book’s retail price and category/genre information was collected from The 913 titles in the study represented works from publishers totalling 13.5% of the U.S. book publishing market. Projecting this $380 million value to the entire industry would, according to the study, result in a total potential piracy figure of $2.8 billion.

The study did not attempt to quantify the actual losses to the book publishing industry. To do so the study would have had to make a determination of how many free downloads might have otherwise resulted in a sale. So we can’t automatically conclude that there would be a lost sale for each download.

However, we also can’t conclude that even the $2.8 billion figure represents the retail value of all online piracy in the book publishing industry. As noted above, the study only focused on illegal file sharing on hosted sites. It did not include the file sharing of books over other online file sharing networks and services such as p2p networks. The study also did not take into account many other popular offline digital methods of copying books including unlicensed copying over closed or proprietary networks including educational networks or unauthorized copying by copy shops.

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