I must say it was heartening to see so many blogs and letters objecting to the behavior of New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife, as described here last time.
To recap: The Biltons surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books” as they sat on the floor “for a couple of hours” at a Barnes & Noble store. They “lobbed” the books back and forth and photographed pages with their iPhones, then “left the store without buying a thing.”
Only later did Bilton wonder, gosh: “Did we do anything wrong?” He sought out legal experts: “Did we indeed go too far?”
I have never heard of such self-absorbed rudeness or flat-out idiocy in a bookstore and was further incensed when the article revealed that Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the Times and author of a book about the future of iPhones, for heaven’s sake. But enough about me.
“Yes, you and your wife went too far,” writes Denny Hatch of the website Target Marketing, “And your tacky little iPhones’ theft of copyright wasn’t the half of it.”
Hatch says Bilton was guilty of “de facto shoplifting — taking merchandise off the shelf, using it and then discarding it.”
In the world of direct marketing, this is “the equivalent of the catalog bandit — the woman that orders three party dresses from a catalog, chooses one to wear to the party and then returns all three the next day for a full refund.”
A Treacherous Course
The Biltons not only got away with ruining the merchandise, writes Richard Curtis at [e-reads], a reprinter of out-of-print books.
“By the mere act of clicking their iPhone a dozen times, Nick Bilton and his wife steered a treacherous course between fair use and piracy, between the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,” Curtis observes.
Bilton tried to excuse himself by saying that “many people have a cavalier attitude toward using cameras to obtain copyrighted material.”
Curtis huffs, “Cavalier indeed. Our archives are packed with the exploits of ‘cavaliers.’ Up to now the Times has tiptoed around the issue of piracy in the book business …. But the time is approaching when the subject will take center stage, for it is by far the greatest threat to the future of authorship and the success of the e-book industry.”
Perhaps it’s not Bilton’s actions but his article that should be held up to scrutiny, writes Bill Rosenblatt at Copyright and Technology. By describing how easy it is to photograph book pages in a store, Bilton has published an “infringement recipe” that could “induce” readers to do the same. Given the newspaper’s exposure and influence, “would [publishers] have a case against the New York Times?”
Swiping More Than the Bar Code
Of course, readers already have the “recipe” for photographic infringement, and more. As independent-publishing expert Dan Poynter puts it, customers regularly “visit a store, see a book they want, pull out their iPhone, check the price at Amazon and make a one-click order.”
To do this fast (before the staff sees ‘em! bad, bad customers!), iPhone users simply photograph the book and let technology take it from there. As Poynter explains:
“Now Amazon makes the process faster and easier with an iPhone App. With Price Check for iPhone, buyers can photograph the bar code of a book (or any other product), say the product name, or type it in. Amazon will find the product and offer it for sale—often for much less. Point, scan, check, click, done. And Amazon delivers.”
“If only the problem were just cell phone pilferers,” writes Suzanne White, author of bestselling astrology books. “People today can scan my entire books and put them up for sale all over the Internet — Kindle, Nook, Crook, et al, and nobody stops them. Others try. I try. But we don’t always succeed.”
White says that “Amazon now asks authors placing their books on Kindle to check a box attesting that they own the rights.” But elsewhere, piracy flourishes. One magazine group in France copied an astrology book by White and “pleaded innocence” when she sued. This group “tried to prove I was complicit because I had written horoscopes for one of their magazines. They had very powerful big guns.” She settled for 5000 francs.
In another case, “back in the beginning of Facebook, I found an
app called Chinese Horoscopes that used my text,” White recalls. “It was doing such good business that after much haggling, I eventually went into business with the guy! He had taken the texts quite innocently from a site that claims to ‘share copyrights.’ I wrote a stinging how-dare-you letter to the owner who wrote back saying that because the company was offshore, I could do nothing.”
The commercial appeal of nonfiction books makes them vulnerable. “Astrology and Tarot and I Ching or diet or cookbooks and many other subject areas are commercial and easily exploited,” White says. But novels are copied illegally, too, especially in foreign countries.
“Does Stephen King know when his books are pirated in Czech or Hungarian, Chinese or Urdu? I doubt it,” White says. “Neither he nor his publishers can read those languages. Let’s face it. This is the Internet. There is money to be made in pirating any and everywhere. Publishers can’t police it any better than authors can.”
Most egregious for White was a matchmaking site in New York that “used my New Astrology™ book, pasted my photo on the front page …. then wrote to congratulate me! I could not get him to take it down. Instead, he hired someone to rewrite it all, paraphrased my whole book and changed the name of his site, and eventually tried to sell it to me for a million dollars (no lack of chutzpah there). Eventually he went bankrupt.”
(Granted it’s not saying much, but) I’ve never heard of such blatant stealing! It’s so criminal, and yet, as White says, going to court is not an option. “The folks who scan my books and pirate them are not rich people. I would be suing in the dark.”
Watching the Bookstore Go Up in Flames
Here’s another scam that floored me. In his article, “The Price of Now: Why I Hate Bookstores,” Kyle Bylin at Hypebot.com says he read the first chapter of Bilton’s book at a bookstore and was so taken with it that “I didn’t want to wait,” so he bought it right there, knowing “I could buy it cheaper on Amazon.”
He did consider another shortcut: “I’ve heard of people buying books from Barnes & Noble and returning them once their Amazon shipment arrives. I opted not to do that.”
My hero! We’re back to women and their pretty dresses! This scheme involves buying and returning the physical book after using the bookstore as your bag man. And won’t that book feel nice and new to the next customer.
Here’s what went through Bylin’s mind as he bought the book for a higher price in the bookstore than he would have paid at home, ordering it on Amazon: “In my head, I came up with the excuse — that while I’d be content with watching the store go up in flames for their high prices — I did like walking around, browsing, and the experience of holding books before I bought them elsewhere.”
So here’s a reader who understands the perilous situation of bookstores, all right. He’s just so jaded by the Internet that he sees the retail price as “a donation for feeling sorry about reading for free.” This was a real jaw-dropper for me. A … a…. donation? You mean, like a … a …. charity? Because you feel sorry for the bookstore?
Exactly, says Bylin. It’s the bookstore’s fault for overcharging the poor customer: “The instant gratification of getting what I want now, in my hands, something that I can carry home and read: Shouldn’t that be the bonus and not the cost?”
Yes, let’s all remember: The world is here to bring everyone like you instant gratification because today nobody owns anything, really. Copyright law is so “uncharted,” as Curtis says, that tools are everywhere to help you monetize, maximize, and Appize everything you want.
Being Almost That Stupid
And everybody’s in on this scam. even authors like Bilton, muses Poynter. “So,” he writes, “was Bilton’s ‘confession’ a publicity stunt to bring attention to his book?”
That would be hard to figure, since Bilton’s article makes him look so stupid. But maybe fame is fame: If you just get your name out there — even exploit the newspaper that (I guess) employs you — readers will race to buy your book.
But could that have been Bilton’s idea all along? I must say, when I listen to Bilton interviewed on the Internet, he seems far more knowledgeable than the kind of jackass who clogs up the aisles of a bookstore while photographing pages of new books and dumbly wondering, “Did we do anything wrong?”
Self-run Social Library Places
To be charitable, maybe Nick Bilton and his wife didn’t actively set out to steal. Maybe they simply represent masses of people who have changed their minds about brick-and-mortar stores in the last decade.
Certainly they, and perhaps millions like them, don’t think of bookstores as places to go to buy books. To them, in the 21st century, bookstores are just vehicles for “showcasing books for Amazon,” as Poynter puts it.
If that’s true, surviving bookstores may now be seen as “self-run social library places,” muses Suzanne White, because they offer book clubs, author events, classes, cooking demonstrations, storytelling hours, sidelines and even books lining shelf after shelf.
At these bookstores, observes White, “bookish and other types can meet and greet each other, have coffee and a sandwich and get to know authors, take courses and hear writers talk about their work.”
Wait a minute: That sounds familiar in a way that’s, you know, alarming.
A successful bookstore, White adds, is more like a “bricks-and-mortar social network,” and there it is, the retail/electronic world in reverse: No longer does Amazon need to mimic the retail experience with its “Look inside!” feature and browsing facsimile. Instead, bookstores should now try to be Facebook inside the retail environment, a place where you can import all your “friends” right there in the aisles.
Isn’t that what the Biltons were doing? They could just email those iPhone photos to their contractor, so they didn’t bother about that pesky problem of buying a book or actually reading it.
This is why Bilton’s “infringement recipe” is so seductive! Customers who “hate bookstores” like Bylin at Hypebot don’t want to wait, and you shouldn’t either! You can “like” bookstore displays, Tweet shelf talkers, video author events and order, order, order books from every other resource but the store itself.
The Entitlement of Internet Pricing
Thank heaven many readers agree with Ben Patterson, a reader who left this comment at Hypebot: Along with “paying rent, providing a community gathering spot [and] bringing cultural events into a neighborhood,” brick-and-mortar bookstores are also “responsible for collecting sales tax — all things Amazon does not do.”
And to bookstore hater Bylin himself, Patterson wrote: “I suppose, if you’d rather have a Cash4Gold or PaydayAdvance on every street corner, that is an alternative, but it feels a lot like Internet pricing entitlement is negatively impacting neighborhoods and service.”
My new hero! That is so true: The sense of entitlement people get from pricing things on the Internet has turned consumers into tyrants! That’s why Bilton and his wife felt so righteous camping out in the aisles; and why Bylin has the audacity to pity rather than respect bookstores.
Patterson understands this odd reasoning: Keep the playing field even by charging Amazon sales tax, he says, and people will stop believing that Amazon is somehow ahead of the game by eluding the law.
That’s the real meaning of internet entitlement, I guess. Once you have your smart phone, anything on display in some dumb brick-and-mortar store is all yours for the taking.