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Steal This F&$#ing Book!

Monday, June 6, 2011

A surprise best seller raises interesting questions about intellectual property in the digital age.

A few weeks ago, I received a surprise email attachment from a friend: a PDF of a “children’s book,” entitled Go The F#&k to Sleep.

The book is a ribald romp through one father’s torturous night trying to put his young child to sleep. Lovingly illustrated and gently prefaced, Go The F#&k to Sleep hilariously juxtaposes traditional children’s bedtime themes with the extreme parental frustration—verging on despair—provoked by the bedtime ritual.

One typical stanza:

The owls fly forth from the treetops,
Through the air, they soar and they sweep.
A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love,
For real, shut the f#&k up and sleep.

After laughing out loud for a while, I gathered myself and forwarded the email to various friends and family members who, like me, are fathers of young children.

But a joking response from one of my friends sparked an interesting legal and ethical question: was it right for me to circulate an entire book to others over email? Is such “file-sharing” different in any significant way from the (illegal, unauthorized) distribution of music or movie files over the Internet? In other words, is there anything qualitatively different about books, and in particular children’s books, that insulates my act of dissemination from wrongdoing?

The short answer to all three questions is “yes,” but it took me a little while to get there.

Is there anything qualitatively different about books, and in particular children’s books, that insulates my act of dissemination from wrongdoing?

One thing worth noting, for starters, is that the author and illustrator of Go the F#&k to Sleep— respectively, Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortés—have apparently welcomed and even encouraged the widespread circulation of their creation. The book has skyrocketed to number one on the best-seller list, fueled almost entirely by the viral, Web-based sensation sparked by a single post by Mansbach on his Facebook page.

Some reports have suggested that booksellers and publishing houses began leaking copies of the book’s electronic version shortly thereafter. And it appears that, after “reading” the PDF, thousands of exhausted, frustrated parents have gone out and pre-ordered the real version of the book on Amazon.

Sure enough, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “galleys of this off-color, not-at-all-for-kids title haven't even been printed, yet tens of thousands of copies have been pre-sold, prompting the publisher to move up the release date four months and increase the print run fifteenfold to 150,000.”

So, in a sense, the free electronic transmission has spurred consumers to buy the real McCoy, and, indeed, writing on the PC Mag website, Peter Pachal presents exactly this theory. “Why are they buying it in the first place, when the whole thing is right there in their inbox?” Pachal wonders. “Simple: compelling content is compelling content, and people are basically honest. If they encounter something they like, they’ll be willing to pay for it—you just need to give them the option.”

According to Pachal, the book’s success derives from the absence of any copy protection on the widely circulating PDF. “If the publisher had sealed advance electronic copies of the book with deadlocked digital rights management,” Pachal reasons, “it would never have had a chance to go viral, and I doubt it would be No. 1 at Amazon right now.”

Free electronic transmission has spurred consumers to buy the real McCoy.

Yet while this assessment contains a measure of truth, it’s incomplete. The anti-digital rights management mindset, which I explored in this space a few years ago, largely misdiagnoses the decimation of the recording industry as being caused by the widespread electronic transmission of “free” content.

In fact, this argument was always infected by a key internal contradiction: why would a consumer wish to pay for something he had already gotten for free? Perhaps, maybe, the freebie could inspire him to try out another song by the same band, or rent a movie by the same director. But, bottom line: he’s already gotten the media he went looking for, and he’s gotten it gratis.

Instead, there’s another aspect to this issue that relates more fundamentally to the difference between electronic and print media. A book—especially a children’s book—needs to be held in one’s hands to be fully and properly enjoyed, whilst music and movies can be relished by mere electronic circulation.

True, the Kindle has eaten away at this distinction with respect to adult books (John Steele Gordon reported here last week that Amazon’s Kindle sales now outpace its traditional book sales), and interactive, kid-friendly iPad apps have partially eroded the uniqueness of the storybook. But the good old-fashioned children’s book—replete with dog-eared pages, smudged illustrations, and, at least in my kids’ case, sheets cemented together by bits of banana—has retained its durability, and will die hardest of all. When it comes to kids’ books, the great pleasure comes (for parent and child) by holding them in your hands and reading them in bed.

In other words, it’s unlikely that the average American would go out and purchase a song or DVD that they already received, free, over email. But it’s perfectly likely—and indeed, affirmatively the case—that people who received this “book” by email would go out and buy it.

I’m one of those folks: shortly after circulating the PDF, my wife and I pre-ordered a copy of the book on Amazon. Now I can put any lingering guilt the f$%& behind me.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an intellectual property attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen has also recently written, "The Real Problem with Government Employee Unions," "The Real Problem With High-Speed Rail" and "Thwarting Cyber 'Predicaments.'" Other related articles include “The End of the Book?” by John Steele Gordon, "Protecting Property on the Internet" by James V. DeLong, and "What Do Vitamins and Fish Oil Tell Us about Drug Research?" by John E. Calfee.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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