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David Flanagan, author of JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, writes:

For 15 years I've been one of those lucky authors who has been able to support himself and his family almost entirely on book royalties. But the publishing industry has been in decline and my royalties checks have decreased more-or-less steadily since the dot-com bust, and I've now decided that I need to look for a salaried job.

15 years is a long time. What a blessing to have been able to do something you love for that long, and get paid for it.

But then he goes off into the weeds a little bit and starts in with his opinions of piracy and Google's role in the world. [Note: I work for Google but not on search. I don't speak for Google and they don't speak for me. It works out well.]

David continues:

I was trying to be provocative when I tweeted the question "Does Google enable piracy?" But I do think it is a valid question. If Google indexes sites like ebookee that link directly to download sites and makes it easy to find the pirated content you want and even offers suggestions on what to search for, I think there is a case to be made that they're encouraging piracy.

Note how quickly we've moved the goalposts from "enabling" piracy to "encouraging" piracy. Lots of technology "enables" piracy; after all, it's only 1s and 0s. In the analog world, even libraries "enable" piracy by putting a photocopier in the same building as a bunch of books. But do libraries "encourage" piracy? No, there are big signs next to the photocopier warning you about copyright law, and photocopies are prohibitively expensive to do anything more than copy a few pages for reference. Does technology "encourage" digital piracy? No, it's only 1s and 0s.

More importantly, contrary to David's assertion, ebookee does not have David's latest book. The entire site is a scam to get people to sign up for Usenet or "premium" file sharing services. They have a page for every book in the universe. A small fraction of them actually have download links, most of which are broken. Mostly, the site just goes round and round. There's a case to be made that the site should be delisted because it's fucking useless, but its existence in search results does not bolster David's argument that Google is "encouraging" piracy.

And now JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is out. I don't have a copy of it yet, but illegal copies are free for anyone who wants one.

This is not true; see above.

And Google will suggest those illegal downloads to anyone who tries to research the book (see the screenshot).

That screenshot actually shows the results of Google's existing filtering program for piracy-related terms like "bittorrent," "rapidshare," and "megaupload." Without that filtering, the suggestion box would be full of piracy-related terms. But more to the point, it would be full of piracy-related terms because that's what people search for. Google's suggestions come from actual searches. It's a mirror onto the world, descriptive not prescriptive. If you don't like how the world looks in the mirror, don't blame the mirror.

David continues:

Here are some small steps that might help:

  • Google could filter its search suggestions so that they do not actively suggest piracy.

Google already does this; see above.

  • Google could flag (without filtering) search results that are likely links to pirated content. Google already flags some results with "this site may harm your computer". Why not flag pirate sites: "Downloading content from this site may result in legal action by the copyright holder" or "Downloads from this site may be illegal". Or nice and simple: "this site may harm your karma".

The difference is that "this site may harm your computer" is based on an objective measurement. You can read how it works. Suspected sites are automatically verified in a virtual machine running an unpatched browser. It is both fascinating and mind-boggling to imagine that it works at all, much less works at Internet scale in near-real time.

On the other hand, legal concepts like "copyrighted material" are more difficult to automate at Internet scale. This is not to say it's impossible; YouTube has its Content ID program for audio and video, but it relies on the fact that people are actually uploading content to YouTube directly. To replicate this program on RapidShare, Google would need to download everything from RapidShare in order to identify it. Ironically, RapidShare makes this technically difficult in order to discourage third-party downloader programs that help users "steal" content from RapidShare without viewing ads or paying for "premium" membership.

And even if all the technical hurdles could be overcome, it still wouldn't necessarily warrant flagging sites like ebookee, which only hosts links to infringing content and not the content itself. (And if Google did start flagging them, they would just add another layer of indirection, or cloak their download URLs, or some other damn thing. You'll never beat piracy this way.)

Speaking of "beating" piracy, an anonymous commenter makes this point:

One of the reasons iTunes is so successful is that they successfully compete with the file sharers. ... Why should I waste time looking for an mp3 that may or may not be of any decent quality when I can download immediately at low cost from iTunes?

Commenter "Peter" makes a related point:

I have been an OReilly Safari subscriber for several years. I can recommend this to every developer out there. ... Yet, must admit it still pains me that for ~$500/year we as honest subscribers can not get the same convenience (offline access, unencumbered PDF's) as people who just download a pirated PDF library for free.

So is piracy really the problem? Is it even a problem? David has provided no evidence that his book is, in fact, wildly pirated. It's not even available yet from dedicated pirate sites. But the larger, more disturbing question is this: who bothers to steal books these days when you can go to Stack Overflow or a web forum or, yes, even Google, type a question, and get an answer?

I'll close with this observation from "Curt":

Most technical book are actually really painful to navigate, but at [one] time they were the only option, now I can find context relevant information in seconds hence books are less convenient and they cost money. The default is now deeply linked, highly specific data. IMHO you are not losing money to piracy, you are failing to make money due to the inadequacy of the book as a medium for technical data.

I think David would actually agree with this. In response to another comment, David himself wrote:

I will say that my book was written as a book, and it probably wouldn't work well online (regardless of whether it could work financially that way). And maybe that is a big piece of my revenue problem: I'm producing content in an old-fashioned medium.

The "book" is dead. Long live "content." And God help us all if world-class writers like David can't make a living from it.