Incentivising honest printing

A soon-to-be outlet manager, Terence, mailed me today with a common question:

I think [Paperight] is an excellent idea , just wondering how one would control the dishonest [outlets] who would buy one pdf and print many. I am sure you have seen the case of the copyshop in Durban central where they had hundreds of thousands of rands worth of textbooks they had copied. I think it was the fraud squad who arrested them.

Terence is right that dishonest photocopying of books is a common problem. (Sometimes it’s not deliberate dishonesty, but just copyright ignorance.) However, I think publishers have been approaching the problem in a one-dimensional way. The fact is, copy shops are meeting a customer demand that publishers and booksellers aren’t meeting. To me, copy shops should be publishers’ distribution partners, which is what Paperight will enable. So, the question then is, “How do we make it worthwhile for copy shops to play by the rules, rather than break them?” Technical restrictions and dire threats alone won’t do the trick – we can only do this by offering incentives.

When we provide a PDF for an outlet to print for a customer, we watermark each page with the outlet’s name, the customer’s name, the date, and a unique URL. Visiting the URL (on a computer or mobile phone) takes the customer to an online help-and-discussion forum for their book. For instance, students can talk to other students about the book or subject they’re studying. Entrepreneurs reading ‘How to start a business’ can talk to other entrepreneurs facing similar challenges. We can also use this online space for prizes and special offers. For some books, only the original purchaser of the document will be entitled to these services. That way, customers are incentivised to request their very own print-outs, discouraging copy shops from making multiple dishonest copies.

By offering this feature, we provide value to the customer. And we also get valuable feedback. We can track and analyse where our documents are from customers’ visiting the forums and offers, providing feedback for the publisher, and showing up potential trouble-spots where piracy might be happening. (E.g. if ten people use the same URL in an area, there are likely to be illegal copies there, and we can trace that back to the original copy shop.) This is simply not possible in conventional book distribution.

Will it eliminate dishonest copying entirely? No, there will always be a measure of that. The important thing is to offer a sensible, attractive alternative that’s as convenient as and more useful than piracy. iTunes did that for music, and Paperight can do the same for books.

We’ll also send a catalogue of the best content we have each month to all registered copy shops that we believe are playing by the rules. This will be in the form of a poster for their shop window to help draw foot traffic and, therefore, more printing customers. On the one side, a large headline grabs the attention of passersby, and on the other, we show the top fifty books on Paperight that month. Our first catalogue will go out in February. If you’d like to get one, register on Paperight for free.