Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Harry Potter bewitches e-books

The huge popularity of J.K. Rowling's books has raised the profile of the debate on Internet piracy in the book publishing industry


Bernd Koelemann, left, a computer engineer in Berlin and a member of a Harry Potter translating collective, with his daughter Anna, at his office in Berlin.


JC, a 36-year-old Harry Potter fan in Kansas City, Missouri, decided he was too old to go chasing after the fifth book in the popular series when it came out last month. Instead, he downloaded the book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix from the Internet, conveniently avoiding both bookstore crowds and the US$29.99 cover price.

"I thought it was a little slow until the second half, then it got much better," said JC, who insisted on being identified only by the online nickname because he thinks that what he did was illegal. He said he still intended to buy the book to read to his 8-year-old son.

So far, authors and publishers have mainly stood on the sidelines of the Internet file-swapping frenzy that has shaken the music industry and aroused fear among makers of motion pictures. But the publishing phenomenon around the young wizard appears to be forging a new chapter in the digital copyright wars: Harry Potter and the Internet pirates.

A growing number of Potter devotees around the world seem to be embracing the prospect of reading the voluminous new book (766 pages in the British edition; 870 in the American version) on the screen. And at least some of them are assisting in the cumbersome process of scanning, typing in or translating the book, which its author, J.K. Rowling, has not authorized for publication in any of the existing commercial e-book formats.

Last week, enthusiastic readers put unofficially translated portions of Order of the Phoenix on the Web in German and Czech, only to remove them after the publishers that own the rights in their respective countries threatened legal action.

English-language copies of the book -- along with fan-written stories masquerading as the real thing -- are available on all the major file-sharing networks in a variety of file formats.

The choices include Adobe's ubiquitous PDF and text files that can be opened in a word-processing program. There is also Microsoft's fancier LIT format, which requires use of its free e-book reader software and opens in a narrow window that looks a lot like a book -- although one with hyperlinks to each chapter and the ability to search for terms like Quidditch.

"What is unusual for us as people who deal with piracy of books is that these are people who are not directly making money for having put them on the Internet," said Ian Taylor, international director of the Publishers Association in Britain. "That is obviously what's been happening with peer-to-peer music, but it's not something we've had to deal with before."

Neil Blair, business manager at Christopher Little, Rowling's literary agency, said the firm was aware of several unauthorized copies of the book on the Web and was contacting Internet service providers to ask that they be removed.

Some publishing industry officials say the electronic Potter piracy may be a perverse sign that the public is finally acquiring a taste for e-books.

"I used to joke in my speeches that e-books had not arrived because none of the pirate sites were dedicated to books," said Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, which began putting books whose copyrights had expired online 32 years ago and has made nearly 9,000 books freely available online. "It is obvious that the infrastructure to make legal e-books is now so strongly entrenched that people feel empowered to make their own, even when the publishing industry refuses."

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