Competing with piracy

I don’t like talking about piracy and Paperight in the same sentence. I didn’t found Paperight to tackle piracy. But since publishers wince every time they hear the word ‘photocopier’, I face the association in every meeting. Then I explain how Paperight should be part of any publisher’s anti-piracy strategy. It takes about twenty minutes to sink in.

Whether book piracy is casual or professional, the customer’s motivation is the same in every case: it’s cheaper. Cheaper not just in money, but in time and energy too. Piracy happens when the total resource cost of acquiring a book – in time, money, and physical and emotional energy – is greater than the cost of acquiring a knock-off.

One businessman I spoke to recently explained how he pirates X Box games: he used to drive across town to buy blank DVDs, spend hours searching for a quality torrent, then download it over two days. In money, this cost about R30 (petrol, DVD, data) – but he couldn’t be bothered any more: adding his time and energy, the total cost was too high. So now he buys pirated copies for R60 from a guy down the road. (A new, legit game would cost about R400.) The total resource cost of making copies himself is higher than the cost of the copy from the guy down the road. But not as high as the legit copy. Three choices, and he picked the one that costs him less overall.

The way to beat piracy is the same way you take on any business: you compete with it by offering an alternative with a lower cost overall. But how do we get the total resource cost of a book below that of a knock-off?

First, we make it cheap. Then, even more importantly, we make it easier to find legit books than to find knock-offs.

In traditional book and ebook publishing, consumers pay about 20% of the retail price for creativity, 10% for packaging, and 70% for availability (shipping, storing, displaying). That’s because the retail price of a book is made up of hundreds of small costs. For the publisher: shipping, warehousing, sales commissions, and the risk of printing copies that won’t sell. For physical bookstores: the opportunity cost of not stocking something that’ll sell better, and the cost of renting space in an accessible, and therefore expensive, location. For the online bookstore: more shipping, web development costs, competitive discounting on other titles (something’s got to pay for big online discounts), and online advertising.

Pirated copies come with far fewer overheads. With Paperight, publishers can start to compete with that. Then, by turning any business with a printer into a bookstore, we drastically reduce the time and energy required to find books as a consumer. Every copy shop, Internet café, and post office is a bookstore.

If you aren’t convinced yet, give it twenty minutes.

Paperight gets a boost

Till now, Paperight has been a labour of love built beside the day-to-day work of Electric Book Works. The site’s never been live, except in rudimentary, pilot-test form for a few weeks in 2009. We were very close to live around the end of 2010, but a bad strategic decision on my part meant we burned too quickly through the last of EBW’s development cash and couldn’t finish. Paperight had to stand quietly while we regrouped. I learned some hard lessons.

From September, though, Paperight’s development will be steaming ahead faster than ever, thanks to the generous support of the Shuttleworth Foundation. I’ll be leaving my day-to-day role at EBW to work full-time on Paperight and its rights engine as a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow. I’m incredibly excited and privileged to have this opportunity, and thrilled to be working with the Foundation: they’re as committed to Paperight’s social bottom line as I am, and fully supportive of Paperight’s financial and environmental aims too. And their emphasis on openness fits well with the transparency Paperight needs in order to be useful and effective.

Paperight will formally become a separate company – not an EBW project – and the Foundation will own a minority stake in it. Over the coming months, I’ll be assembling a team and meeting with potential partners – content owners, universities, printing and copier businesses and others – with the aim of rolling out a working Paperight service within months.

Here’s my (rough but sincere) Shuttleworth pitch video:


Original designs

We’ve been talking about Paperight for a long time and still haven’t shipped. We’re impatient, but building this alongside day jobs means we’re vulnerable to bottlenecks and running out of cash to fund the time we need to finish. Still, we could get a lot of useful feedback if we could show you what we’re working on. So, to start, we’ve put a few original designs up at These show what we’re aiming for, although our pilot and beta sites won’t look like this yet.

First of all, what is Paperight?

Paperight’s not launched yet, but here’s a run down of how it will work.

First, what problem are we trying to solve? In most developing countries, book stores are rare, especially in rural areas. And computing and Internet access are still not accessible enough for most people, so ebooks aren’t going to solve this problem soon. But, there are tens of thousands of photocopiers in businesses and institutions in these places. We can solve this problem by letting them print books out, and pay the publishers a rights fee to do so. Publishers have been selling print-distribution rights to businesses abroad for ages – Paperight just makes that process really easy and quick.

So, Paperight turns any copy shop into a book shop. Anyone with a computer and a printer can register as a Paperight copy shop and purchase licences to print and sell books. Publishers can add books and reach markets that conventional book distribution can’t. The publisher picks the countries they want to distribute to, and can set rights fees that decrease over time as a copy shop buys further licences.

Of course, Paperight can also be used for more than just books. Paperight is for anything that can fit on A4 paper, including short stories, poems, flyers, notices, forms, booklets, plans, patterns, and newsletters.

  • Paperight provides every document in A4-sized PDF, ready to print. Users choose whether they want one-up or two-up pages (to save printing costs) on a sheet.
  • Paperight leaves 15% of every page for advertising. Copy shops can sell that ad space to local businesses.
  • Every PDF includes a message and unique code that encourages anyone to tell us where they see Paperight books. Publishers can get direct feedback on where their books are being read. (We’re using for this.)

That’s the nutshell! We’ll post some visuals soon.