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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Used or pirated books

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Last month I visited Churchgate in Mumbai and bought over 15 second-hand books from famous vendors at Flora Fountain. Around same time, I saw vendors selling pirated copies of popular books at Andheri station. Last week I found myself with a question to which I could find no answer. While I am stumped at stupidity of not realizing this earlier, answer has profound implication for me.

What is the difference when one buys second-hand books or pirated books? Aren’t they same to all relevant parties?

In both cases, neither publisher nor author gets any fee. In both cases, both publisher and author get credit and fame (since pirated books are printed exactly like original). In both cases, buyer pays less than original price of the book — which, of course, is not single number because retailers have different discount schemes. In both cases, middleman benefits from the sale — either a vendor of used books or publisher and seller of pirated books.

Yes, technically, there is a difference. A new book buyer buys book under proper license and credit. Once book becomes his property, he can sell it to anyone he deem fits. This buyer can re-sell it and so on. A publisher of pirated books steals the copyrighted content and sells to buyer. Yet, practically, if I have to chose between buying a second-hand and a pirated book, there is no difference. In both cases, creative talent is not rewarded and only middle facilitator benefits. Why should I be partial to profits of used book vendors while desisting profits of pirated books vendor? True that one stole and another legally purchased but they are but mere nuances since material impact to all concerned parties is exactly the same. It might be said that one is making an honest living while another is stealing (but who is the victim? Original author but only if only alternative is to buy new book, not used book).

This gets further compounded by the fact that used book vendors themselves are lot which don’t get much sympathy from buyers because of obsessive margins maintained by them (my guess, don’t jump on me for this). While buying second-hand books is perfectly acceptable commercial transaction in all societies of world, buying pirated is considered immoral and unethical. But if there is no difference between both, does buyer of pirated books need to feel guilty (if he does at all)?

This, of course, assumes that choice is between buying pirated and used books. Buying fresh new books is always better move, without doubt. This also assumes that feeling of reading original (without typos and poor print that typically occur in stolen material, though, it appears that quality of pirated books is increasing rapidly) book is not an issue with the reader.

I end this post with one plausible weak reason where buying pirated books could be worse than buying used books: people buy new books only to be able to sell them later. If this is plausible, then buying pirated reduces market for used books thus reducing re-selling ability of vendors and plummeting the sell price of original buyer. This disincentives the original buyer from buying new books and thus original author and publisher also suffer material loss and financial damage. This argument is weak because most book lovers who buy new books don’t buy because they intend to sell them (they might as well sell them but that is not reason of buying in the first place). They buy new books because they like the feeling of fresh crisp pages and smell of printed paper. They buy new books because they want to own and re-read the books and maintain a library. How many of first time buyers sell their books (not talking of textbooks in this post) anyway?

Unless I receive satisfactory response to my conundrum, I will be become more immune to guilt of buying pirated book (unless, of course, I plan to buy original one).