A Tale of Ordinary Piracy (and Stupidity)

RSS  •  Permalink  •  Created 17 Jun 2015  •  Written by Alberto Pettarin

This morning I was browsing for ebook reader apps on Google Play, when I came across to this one: L'alchimista (The Alchemist, in Italian).

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Look at the cover: it says "Paulo Coelho" (which is not written elsewhere in the store page) and it looks like the cover of a commercial book, except for the fact that the name of the publisher is absent, and its developer is listed as "Name Surname".

It looks like a pirated version of the Italian translation of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. But maybe I am wrong.

Book piracy on Google Play has been rampant for ages, so it would be nothing new.

The interesting fact, here, is that this is an app. With thousands of downloads and hundreds of 5-stars reviews:

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The app can be downloaded for free, unlike the previous cases in Google Play Books.

From the app screenshots, it seems the app does not contain ads:

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At this point, it is not clear to me whether someone wants to make money out of someone else's work, specifically the Italian translator and publisher, or I am just misunderstanding what is going on.

Being curious, and for research purposes only (I own a paper copy of this book, and I even dislike it), I installed the app on my phone:

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You can clearly see that legally getting the book from Google Play Books costs 7.99 Euros --- discussing whether this is a fair price would make for another interesting post, especially considering Coelho himself recommended pirating his own books and that he offers the download of EPUB files of the original version of some of his books from his Web site.

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And of course, once opened, you get served with ads:

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... which eventually explains a lot of things.

Lessons Learned

You cannot tell Google about it

First of all, Google accepts copyright complaints from copyright holders only. Which makes sense, but combined with virtually no gate keeping, this allows for pirated contents to thrive on Google Play.

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Tell the copyright holder instead

I let Bompiani, the Italian publisher of the book, know via Twitter:

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In case they are going to take action, I will update this post. So far, they have not responded to my tweet.

UPDATE 2015-06-22: I sent two more tweets (second and third), but I got no replies. The app is still available on Google Play.

If it is for free, people will blindly go for it

In my opinion, the most incredible thing about this story was seeing the hundreds of user reviews (mostly giving it 4 or 5 stars) for this app.

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And the main problem is not even that this app looks like biological waste (technically/UI/UX speaking), to the extent it should be banned from the store just for its ugliness. (Who the hell is going to read a book with such an app? You cannot even change the reading font face or size!)

The main problem is elsewhere.

Do you want to download a pirated book for free? That is understandable, I am the first to agree that asking 7.99 Euros for The Alchemist is aggravated robbery. (Another very good topic for another post.)

But being willing to write a review, which can be seen by anyone browsing the store, publicly revealing that you have downloaded a pirated book is downright stupid...

... or isn't it?

I am afraid this behavior is a symptom of something deeper: lots of people do not even have a basic understanding of how copyright works, how digital ecosystems work, what the roles of content creators and developers and platform providers are, who eventually gets the money and how it is split among them, etc.

In other words, I genuinely believe that a significant fraction of the people who downloaded this app and read the book for free did so without considering the consequences of their action.

Frankly, I am more scared by this lack of knowledge (and its scale) than by the fact that a perfectly unknown Mr. John Doe might want to make "easy money" out of someone else's work.

Bonus: the best passages section

You might have noticed that the store description stated that the app contains a section with the best passages from the book, which indeed it does:

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In case you wonder, these passages are exactly the same as those appearing in this blog post:

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(but of course I cannot tell which one came first, maybe there is a common ancestor I could not identify.)