notes from underground 02.24.2005, 11:17 PM
posted by dan visel
It should come as no surprise to anyone that there's a thriving underground trade in ebooks on peer-to-peer filesharing networks - just as there is in movies and music. Curious about exactly what was being pirated, I paid a visit to my local BitTorrent tracking site to see what's being shared.
A quick introduction: BitTorrent isn't like the Napster or Gnutella model of filesharing in that it doesn't index media files on users' computers. Instead, users who want to share files generate & upload a small file called a torrent, listing the shared file or files. When this file is downloaded by other users, it connects them into a network; the computers thus connected pass bits and pieces of the files back and forth until everyone has everything. If nobody's connected to the torrent, it dies. But because everyone who wants to download also has to upload, it's a very efficient way to spread large files, like movies, very quickly.
Because torrents come and go very quickly, one can only present a snapshot of what's being served up at a certain time. On the day I looked in, 135 ebook torrents were active. This number, however, is deceptively low: the vast majority of the torrents contained multiple books, and were consequently quite large. One torrent, for example, contained an astonishing 210 O'Reilly computer books in PDF format; it was 750 megabytes. Also on offer: the complete Calvin & Hobbes, 150 Mb.
What was popular? To generalize: geek culture. About 20% of the torrents were comic books or manga; about 18% were computer books. Music-related books (including a lot of guitar tabs) and self-help books tied for third at about 14% each. Torrents tended to show up in clumps - books on military history and digital photography were making strong showings at the moment. But there's a little bit of everything: Hunter S. Thompson's collected works were available, as well as something entitled "The Essential Guide to Becoming a Doctor", and a 285 Mb collection of popular science texts.
Ebooks came in a variety of flavors, almost all of them ugly. There were simple text files, a smattering of Microsoft Word & PowerPoint documents, plenty of PDFs, some HTML, and some proprietary ebook formats, .lit (Microsoft Reader), and .tr (TomeReader). The most interesting was the way in which comic books were presented: zipped files of numbered JPEGs are presented in the .cbr or .cbz formats, which are designed to be viewed in programs called CDisplay (for PC) or Comical (for Mac & Linux). They let you arrow through the scanned pages.
A complete run of the comic book version of The Simpsons was on offer; I downloaded a couple of issues to see how they looked. They were easy to read on screen, but the scans were amateur jobs: they tended to be washed out. I also downloaded a huge collection of philosophy texts; in two torrents, there were about 200 texts, a smattering of everything. A sampling: in addition to Benjamin Jowett's Plato, you got most of Sophocles' plays; there was Spinoza, a lot of Hegel, Foucault's Madness and Civilization as well as The Tao of Pooh, to say nothing of a copy of Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. Texts came from a variety of sources; there was some pirated commercial material, some public domain work from Project Gutenberg or marxists.org, and as a special bonus: a 600 page dissertation on Heidegger as well as a folder labeled "Student Papers (poor quality)", of which the less said the better.
It would take years to consume the tens of thousands of pages I downloaded in less than an hour. My reading list's already far too long for this life, and I'm certainly not going to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in a poorly-set 360 page PDF edition. I threw it all away (save a typo-ridden text entitled "Heidegger, the Erotics of Ontology, and the Mass-Market Romance" which I've saved for later delectation). The overwhelming sense I came away with is one of overwhelming maximalism: does this appeal to anybody but those collectors who wish to boast of gigabyte libraries, not caring what's in them?
What might be a useful counterpoint: while torrenting away, I came across Smakerel's still unfinished presentation of A Biased History of Interactive Media. David Groff and Kevin Steele show how multimedia - and electronic books - worked before the Internet made everything free and easy. Constraint, in their history, encouraged creativity: note how impressive some of the Hypercard text art they talk about remains.
Posted by dan visel on February 24, 2005 11:17 PM
JD McMillan on March 8, 2005 4:00 PM:
That was a really interesting post. Thanks for sharing. I didn't realize there was so much ebook trading going on - I always sort of thought books were immune from piracy/online trading issues. For some reason I imagined that most people are turned off by reading books on a computer. We'll see if it ever catches on to anything near the levels of music/movies. 200 philosophy texts is kind of excessive, but it sure is more convenient than going to the library.