Interviews with E-Book-Pirates„The book publishing industry is repeating the same mistakes of the music industry“

What MP3, Napster and portable audio players were for the music industry, EPUB and e-book readers are for the book publishing world. interviewed three operators of semi-legal websites for DRM-free e-books.

Buch und E-Book-Reader. Bild: Cristian Eslava. Lizenz: Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

They all agree that the book publishers fail to understand and adopt to the digital world. Differences arise because one of the sites is now charging money from its users – an absurd idea for the other two.

(This is en English translation of the original German posting.)

Two weeks ago, we reported about a legal complaint against the newspaper publishing houses of Tagesspiegel and Zeit Online. Their crime: In an interview with the operator of the website TorBoox they mentioned the full domain name: In contrast to the mindset of, we have not become aware of the site through the interview, but because of the ridiculous legal complaint.

Meanwhile, the author Selim Özdoğan announced in an interview, that he is publishing his new short story collection „Freikarte fürs Kopfkino“ („free ticket for mental cinema“) exclusively on TorBoox.

Once we were already dealing with the topic, we conducted our own interview with the book-pirates from TorBoox. We also interviewed the operators of two other e-book-sites which operate as Tor Hidden Services: The Imperial Library of Trantor and Jotunbane’s Reading Club.

All three websites offer e-books in EPUB format. While TorBoox counts almost 40.000 books, the Imperial Library of Trantor has about 11.000 and the Reading Club around 450. The people behind both TorBoox and „the Club“ buy e-books and put them on their site – Jotunbane pays painstaking attention to quality in the process. In the Imperial Library, users can upload books themselves and share them with others.

All three operators criticize how book publishers are handling the digital world. Spiegelbest from TorBoox is „missing an attractive digital offer“ – which could only be a flat rate. Las Zenow from the Imperial Library and Jotunbane criticize that book publishers insist on old ideas of copyright and are ignoring digital realities. Both compare the behavior of the book publishers with that of the music industry in the times of Napster – and fiercely criticize Digital Rights Management (DRM).

They are all aware that they are breaking laws with their services. While Jotunbane mainly wants to produce perfect digital books and share them with others, Las Zenow offers the public the option to share digital books widely. Both do what they do because they believe in the free exchange of knowledge – and their services will always remain free of charge, although they offer the option to donate. TorBoox on the other hand is currently turning to a payment-based model. Starting next week, users will have to pay 10 Euros for three months, so that they can download 150 books per day. They justify this with increased costs for servers, traffic and books. Las Zenow and Jotunbane reject a payment model with unauthorized copies and call it both „unethical“ and „morally wrong“.

Here are the three full interviews: (direct links: TorBoox, Imperial Library of Trantor, Jotunbane’s Reading Club)

Interview: Spiegelbest of TorBoox (Tor Onion)

torbooxTo be blunt: We are book pirates. All our books are freed from DRM and fast4free. We are user-friendly, ad-free, but at best semi-legal. How many books are available on TorBoox? In which file formats?

Spiegelbest: We are offering almost 40,000 books. All books are in EPUB format – without exception. This includes many books we bought in recent years. So we are quite up-to-date. I guess, we hardly missed a popular title in the last years. Do I understand correctly that you cannot download a book without having to pay first?

Spiegelbest: That’s right. From October 3rd – our deadline for the collection of a usage fee – you have to pay € 10 to be able to download. This is correct. How much does one have to pay? For what? Is it 10 euros for three months, then you can download up to 150 books per day?

Spiegelbest: That’s right, you can download 150 books per day. The € 10.00 are per quarter. Probably, we will have a lot of money left at the end. We do not know yet how to credit the money to the users. We are still searching for a good idea. And the trolls are waiting for a justice gap. When was the point to switch the (formerly free?) offer to a payment-based model? Or is it only now?

Spiegelbest: We are only now switching to a payment-based model. Deadline is October 3rd. A few days ago, the billing feature was implemented tentatively. Essentially, ever since we were heading towards 100.000 downloads a day, we didn’t see any future for the donation-based model. The number of downloads are not the problem, but the parallel traffic. We have consistent growth rates of 15-20 % every month. So we are heading towards 10 million downloads in fall 2014. We had to ask ourselves – not just for fun – whether we should stop or switch to a payment-based system. Why can other projects such as the Imperial Library of Trantor or Jotunbane ’s Reading Club provide their service free of charge, but you cannot?

Spiegelbest: Well, we had 90,000 downloads a few days ago and massive traffic. I don’t know the sites you mention. But I do not think I could get to know them, if they would only get a fraction of our traffic. Jokes aside: We did start free of charge, but we became victims of our own success. The donations we received were not enough to ensure an expandable technical setup. So the question arose: Stay free-4-all and quit, or just charge € 3.33 and set sail.

„Free of charge “ is a nice word. But I cannot leave it like this: the users always pay – be it via ad banners or for the premium accounts on hosters. The only difference is that we get the money directly from the users. With this, we have an incredible financial potential in our hands. This money immediately means safety and design possibilities. I am announcing here and now, that others in the scene will soon follow and no longer be satisfied with pocket change. That will be the end of the one-click-hosters and their porn ads. Can you say how much money you have to spend for technology and traffic?

Spiegelbest: Currently we pay approximately € 500 for technical equipment, but we already ordered new equipment. To be well equipped with e-books – we need around € 1,000. That may not sound like much, but at first we paid for our servers ourselves. This is simply not possible anymore. Also, the donations for the equipment were not enough. With € 1,000 we want to get well over the Christmas months. Aren’t you afraid to be even more vulnerable to legal threats with the payment model than you already are?

Spiegelbest: I am the spokesperson and I never uploaded anything. What should I be afraid of? But I understand your question and I’ll try to answer it.

We are transferring the money of the users, we don’t make it disappear. On behalf of them, we buy the e-books that they want. And the servers they need. But we have no intent to make a profit. We will not cross that red line. At the end of the day, we will be confronted with legal threats, of course. Hmm … then we will just disappear again. If the publishers do not want to build their own flat rate to compete with us, then they need to stop the legal complaints. How much attention did you actually get from the Tagesspiegel interview? What has changed?

Spiegelbest: This may sound presumptuous, but we already had very good growth rates. We were already in the growth area where word of mouth propaganda is effective. Don’t forget that readers of e-books are recognizable by their e-book readers. That’s why they easily get into conversations.

Thanks to the Tagesspiegel interview, we became known among journalists and subsequently among decision-makers. It didn’t really spread our service, but it helped to spread our story: „Book pirates show publishers how to sell e-books!“

It’s funny that the director of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association has called a few of his friends in politics to help fight us. This shows that the digital book market holds quite a few surprises for the publishers. What is your comment on the criminal charges raised as a result of that interview?

Spiegelbest: Gigantic – the GVU (Society for the Prosecution of Copyright Infringement) may make a wish!

Interview: Las Zenow of the Imperial Library of Trantor (Tor Onion)

imperial-libraryWe like to pay the authors, but not the corporations that make profit from them. We won’t listen to any content remove request from corporations, editorials, right management organizations or any other blood-suckers. Who are you?

Las Zenow: I’m Las Zenow, or at least that is one of my names in the cyberworlds. I’m an avid reader and a computer geek. I love books, I can spend hours digging into piles of books on a second hand shop searching for unknown books or beautiful editions.

I’m also an enthusiast of the possibilities new technologies brings to us. I think we have now a great opportunity to empower us as well as a huge risk of loosing our privacy. I’m trying to do my part on allowing the cybersociety to be governed by the people and not by money and corporations. What is the Imperial Library of Trantor?

Las Zenow: The Imperial Library of Trantor is a virtual bookshelf, where everybody can find the book he wanted to read, as well as a community of readers that is free to share their books.

All the books are DRM-free and in EPUB format, an open format of electronic book designed to be comfortable to read independently of the device’s screen size. Almost all devices support EPUB format except Amazon Kindle, which uses it’s own format (MOBI). There are anyway several applications that can convert from EPUB to MOBI, so even if you have a kindle you can enjoy our library. Why did you start the Imperial Library of Trantor?

Las Zenow: I always end up with way more books that what I can store. The digital era has come with a great solution to my problems: the electronic paper. Now I can have all my beloved books (and also the ones I don’t like) in one small device which I can carry around. I still love paper, but now I don’t need to have everything I want to read in paper.

When I moved to electronic books I found hard to find the books I wanted. You can get them using one of the shops of electronic books, but they are mainly controlled by few corporations and the books are abusively priced. They are asking you to pay almost the same amount that you would pay for the physical book, when it don’t cost them anything to produce your copy. And even after paying the price you don’t own the book, they come with DRM that prevent you from borrow it to a friend or sometimes they decide to remove it from your device without your consent.

The Imperial Library of Trantor is an attempt to improve this situation giving back to the reader the control on their books. It started, like most good computer programs, in a night of hacking toying with web technologies. But grew over the months and now, after more than a year since it started, it’s pretty stable and full of books.

It still needs a lot of work to be as good as we dream it. This is something we do for fun, in our spare time, some times don’t evolve as fast as we wish, but step by step it’s getting better. What can one find on the Imperial Library of Trantor?

Las Zenow: There is any kind of book. You can find thousands of novels, from big bestsellers to obscure ones, there are essays, cooking books, technical computer books, … Anything that the users decide to upload. How many books are there on the Imperial Library of Trantor?

Las Zenow: Right now there are around 11.000 books. But this number is constantly growing thanks to the users of the library which are constantly uploading. You can contribute to the library uploading your own books too, if you want. Why are you running the site as a Tor Hidden Service?

Las Zenow: The big corporations that build their business model on selling pieces of culture spend a lot of resources on trying to stop people from accessing them. Instead of using their profit to pay well the authors or to give better service to their customer, they prosecute whoever help others to access cultural content.

The Tor Hidden Services gives us anonymity, no one can know where our servers are. Using it the corporations that tries to stop us from spreading culture can’t find who we are or block our web site. Are you breaking any laws?

Las Zenow: I guess we are breaking the laws of a lot of countries, most of the countries don’t allow public distribution of copyrighted content. But we live in the cyberspace, where the laws of the physical world can not reach.

In most of the countries what is illegal is to distribute copyright works, but not to posses a downloaded copy. Therefore, in most of the places, the users of our library are safe. The ones taking risk is therefore only us by hosting the service, not them. If you are breaking any laws, do you care? Why (not)?

Las Zenow: We think the copyright laws are an old beast from other times when coping books was costing money. They are useless now.

With the advent of the digital era the rules on information has changed. Before computers we needed physical objects to spread the culture, like books, cassettes or VHS’s. But now we got rid of the physical objects and we can copy culture for free. There is nothing to stop us on achieving the old dream of the universal access to the culture, to give everybody free access to every cultural work.

Of course we have to feed the authors, but with the capitalist way of commercialize culture we are doing it really badly. We are in fact well feeding big corporations but not the authors. What’s wrong with the book publishing world today?

Las Zenow: The book publishing industry now is like the copyright laws, an obsolete business that is not adapted to the new world. It still has a huge complex infrastructure that is not need anymore, making the book publishing expensive, what means that the authors are getting a tiny share on the sells.

They still relay on creating few best sellers, expending huge amount of money on advertisements for them. But now the people has access to more variety of books and can read the specific topics they actually like, instead of reading what is hot in the news. What’s wrong with DRM?

Las Zenow: Sometimes I have the impression that by moving to the digital world the market is removing rights from us instead of giving the freedom we can achieve with this technologies. DRM is a good example of that.

With digital books we can do way more things than with physical ones, like for example having them on several places at the same time or being able to choose the way the book is displayed. With DRM we are not only missing all this new possibilities, we are also losing the rights we use to have with physical books, like borrow them to our friends.

With DRM we stop being the owners of our books. Which direction does digital book publishing need to go?

Las Zenow: Now we all have the tools to auto-publish and there is other channels to distribute them that don’t require huge money on advertisements. It no longer makes sense to have big corporations behind the book publishing, we can have thousands of small publishing groups to distribute better the profit to the authors and give back the control to the readers. Will the Imperial Library of Trantor always be free of cost?

Las Zenow: Yes, definitely. The Imperial Library of Trantor will always be free or it will not be. How many donations do you receive?

Las Zenow: It’s only being one month since there is a donations address on the library. Up to now we have mainly received one generous donation of almost 1BTC.

We are volunteers, we are not planning to make a living with the Imperial Library of Trantor. But we hope to get enough money from the donations to pay for the servers and the internet bandwidth. If we rise some money we’ll use it to improve the infrastructure behind the web site so it can be faster and hold more users. And maybe even get a public web place outside Tor. What do you think of other semi-legal book-sites who want to take money from their readers?

Las Zenow: I find unethical to get money from the readers without paying the authors. Now that we can, we have to create channels to access books without dependence on monetary resources. The people from TorBoox are saying, that with almost 40.000 E-Books and 90.000 Downloads yesterday, they are „victims of their own success“ and can’t continue providing the service without forcing the users to pay. Do you have a response to that?

Las Zenow: Other organizations managed to get the money to maintain their system with millions of users without charging for them. See the example of Wikipedia, being the 6th most visited web page it is a non-pay and non-advertisement site.

I think is bad to create one big place, what we need is more small ones. It’s harder to maintain one big one than to maintain hundreds of them, and if the site closes or becomes paying place the users don’t have any other choice.

For me the ideal future will be to have hundreds of sites that interact between each other so if the place you are looking for don’t have the requested book it can point you other place that has it. Anything you’d like to add?

Las Zenow: I Just would like to encourage your readers to share their books. When we were kids they used to tell us that sharing is good, now the culture corporations are trying to teach us the opposite by saying that if you share you are stealing. I still think is good to share culture. Sharing has nothing to do with theft since by doing it we are not removing belongings from anybody. BTW, I am also interviewing Jotunbane from Jotunbane’s Reading Club.

Las Zenow: That is a great idea, he is doing great quality books.

Interview: Jotunbane of Jotunbane’s Reading Club

readers-against-drmInstead they all wanted to sell me locked-down ‚TV versions‘ of books that had all sorts of weird restrictions and they even had the nerve to make them more expensive than their paper alter-ego. This is called „shooting yourself in both feet at the same time“. For one, I’m not going to pay more for a product that does less. And second, I’m not going back to paper. Now I have nowhere to buy my books (there are exceptions to this, Baen being the most obvious), so what do I do? Well, I make my own books. Who are you?

Jotunbane: My name is Michael and I live near Copenhagen. Guess that will have to do. It’s not hard to find out your last name.

Jotunbane: I know that my identity is, at best, „shaded“. But being a „true hacker“ I’m not ashamed of what I do. If people want to find me, they can. The site is not hosted on my home system, so finding me will not do anything. Sure, it could put me (personally) in a tight spot really fast, but that is a risk I’m willing to take. You can publish my full name if you want. You also have a picture on the site of a person. Might that be you?

Jotunbane: Yeah, that’s me. What is Jotunbane’s Reading Club?

Jotunbane: „The Club“ is basically all the books I have ever read (and a few I haven’t read yet) organized in a database. Why did you start the Reading Club?

Jotunbane: I used to work in publishing and needed something that would present my book collection in a uniform and readable format. I have the bad habit of not accepting books with strange or inconsistent formatting. My background in publishing gave me the „skillz“ to fix my books, but I still needed somewhere to store them. So I designed „The Club“. What can one find on the Reading Club?

Jotunbane: Right now these are (mostly) my books. I would love it if people would start to add their books as well, but this is not likely to happen. A few people (four as far as I remember) have tried to contribute books, but so far all have failed. None of them have told me why and I don’t bug my users for answers. The books are all optimized for my E-Book-Reader, but you can make a custom Stylesheet if they look funny on your device. So far nobody has done that, and the books are confirmed „good looking“ on most devices. I also do requests, so if you need a book just ask and I will go hunting for it. What’s the source of the books? Where do you get them from?

Jotunbane: I buy them, same as everybody else. How many books are there on the Reading Club?

Jotunbane: As of right now 450. Not a lot I know, but I take the time to fix OCR errors, I haven’t seen anybody else try that. The focus is on „correct“ or „good looking“ books, it was never my goal to have a million books. And people seem to like them, I count just under 10.000 downloads (and that’s all from the outside, the books I download locally are not counted). 450 books, but 10.099 EPUBs? Where does the difference come from?

Jotunbane: It says 10.099 EPUBs CREATED. Every time you download a book on the page a new EPUB is generated. I can edit individual paragraphs in the books, so when I see an error in one of my books, I have the option of fixing it without having to mess around with the EPUBs themselves, and that’s actually why you can read the books online (you get a Wiki-like interface on books that you „own“). So to make sure you always get the latest, most error free, version, I just recreate the book for every download. Why are you running the site as a Tor Hidden Service?

Jotunbane: I guess that’s obvious. It would be taken down faster than you can say DMCA if it was on the clearnet. Are you breaking any laws?

Jotunbane: Several :) Do you care? Why (not)?

Jotunbane: Sure I care. But what can I do? The laws are wrong on several different levels (the copyright monopoly have been extended 16 times in my lifetime alone, and will continue to be extended every time Mickey Mouse is getting close to the public domain). There will always be consequences when you decide to break the law and the risk of punishment is clearly part of the equation. Under US law I could get fined $150.000 for each infringement, but this is not a question of money, it’s a question of doing the right thing. Sharing is caring, so of course I care. What’s wrong with the book publishing world today?

Jotunbane: They are dinosaurs. They are basically trying to pretend that the internet never happened. I can understand why, their business model are not geared for it. And as I say on the page, the fact that the internet makes this easy is not-a-bug, it is a fact, and if you business model can not handle this fact, you are going out of business. But instead of changing their business model, they have declared war on a technology. This has been tried before, the music industry had a war against Napster and MP3 players (and before that, the player piano, the record player, DAT and cassette recorders). The movie industry had a war against VCR’s and both are still trying to combat The Pirate Bay. I guess that’s life. Stupid people are destined to repeat history, and clever people are destined to see history repeated over and over. What’s wrong with DRM?

Jotunbane: It can’t work. And if you think it might be possible to make it work, you don’t understand computers.

It is a threat to innovation. A threat to privacy. And a threat to freedom. These are my books. There are no similar restrictions on the print books that I buy (Can you imagine that conversation: You can’t take that book across the border, because you only bought the right to read it in country X).

Anyway, I don’t really care that much about DRM. I have long ago stopped buying books with DRM on them. If a book is only available with DRM, I refuse to pay for it. I may still want to read it, and if that makes me a criminal then so be it. Which direction does digital book publishing need to go?

Jotunbane: Good question. The best alternative I have seen are Christian Engström and Rick Falkvinge’s „The Case For Copyright Reform“ (book #300 on the site). That can be summed up as: Legalized file sharing, shorter protection times for the commercial copyright monopoly, free sampling and a ban on DRM. Where is the money supposed to come from? How are writers supposed to be paid?

Jotunbane: Let me quote from the book: „Should the question of whether we want to keep the right to private communication, due process, and proportionality in punishments really depend on whether it is profitable for artists or not?“

To be honest, I hate that question. We call it „the entitlement argument“ (I deserve to get paid for the work I do). And that is just bullshit. If people like what you do, they will gladly pay you for it. (Cory Doctorow seem to be doing ok, and all his books are available for free on his website).

So, to be blunt, artists are not supposed to get paid, artists are supposed to make art. If you can make a living doing art then sure, do that. But a true artist will make art anyway, because he is an artist. Will the Reading Club always be free of cost?

Jotunbane: The books on the page will always be free (as in beer). As I am fond of saying „All Your Books Are Belong To Us!“. That’s not just a funny saying, the books you publish may be yours in the sense of copyright, but they are part of our culture, so they do belong to all of us. How many donations do you receive?

Jotunbane: So far none. But that was expected. I didn’t think I would get rich doing this. What do you think of other semi-legal book-sites who want to take money from their readers?

Jotunbane: That’s morally wrong. A wise man once said (I think it was Bob Dylan) „To live outside the law, you have to be honest“. Selling what others have made without permission and without cutting them in on the deal is not honest and not something I want to do. That’s why I very carefully retain the copyright information on the books. The people from TorBoox are saying, that with almost 40.000 E-Books and 90.000 Downloads yesterday, they are „victims of their own success“ and can’t continue providing the service without forcing the users to pay. Do you have a response to that?

Jotunbane: I disagree. They could easily keep the service free (just stop charging). And with +38.000 books they are clearly not doing it for the right reasons. I can’t comment on what their motives are, but they are not doing it „for the books“. I do what I do because I really love books. They seem to love „big site’s with lots of traffic“. BTW, I am interviewing Las Zenow from the Imperial Library of Trantor and Spiegelbest from TorBoox, too.

Jotunbane: I have exchanged a few mails with Las Zenow and I do visit his page from time to time. I don’t like so I have actually never seen that site.

It’s nothing personal, I’m sure they are nice guys. But as I see it they don’t bring anything to the party. (Sorry guys, if we ever meet I’ll buy you a beer ;)

4 Ergänzungen

  1. Eines vorab: Ich finde auch, daß DRM die Rechte des Kunden unverhältnismäßig einschränkt.
    Ich finde, daß die Betreiber der Buchdownloadportale es sich zu einfach machen. Nur weil ein Gesetze unsinnig und veraltet sind, hat keiner einen Freibrief dafür, diese Gesetze zu übertreten.

    Es wäre doch besser, wenn diese E-Book-Piraten einen eigenen Verlag gründen und die Bücher so zu vermarkten wie sie sich das vorstellen. Oder eben eine Plattform schaffen, auf der die Autoren selbst ihre Bücher anbieten und auch das Entgelt selbst kassieren können. Wenn sich das Modell dann bewährt, kann es sich auch am Markt durchsetzen.

    Mit Gesetzesübertretungen kommt man hier meiner Meinung nach nicht weiter.Die Obrigkeit und die Konzerne haben die Möglichkeit die Konsumenten dahingehend zu polen, daß die Menschen mit anderen Meinungen Diebe sind die anderen etwas wegnehmen.

    Also liebe Piraten – selber machen und besser machen ist hier die Lösung.

    Viele Grüße

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