July 19, 2024

Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Plan

Despite J.K. Rowling’s decision not to offer the new Harry Potter book in e-book format, it took less than a day for fans to scan the book and assemble an unauthorized electronic version, which is reportedly circulating on the Internet.

If Rowling thought that her decision against e-book release would prevent infringement, then she needs to learn more about Muggle technology. (It’s not certain that her e-book decision was driven by infringement worries. Kids’ books apparently sell much worse as e-books than comparable adult books do, so she might have thought there would be insufficient demand for the e-book. But really – insufficient demand for Harry Potter this week? Not likely.)

It’s a common mistake to think that digital distribution leads to infringement, so that one can prevent infringement by sticking with analog distribution. Hollywood made this argument in the broadcast flag proceeding, saying that the switch to digital broadcasting of television would make the infringement problem so much worse – and the FCC even bought it.

As Harry Potter teaches us, what enables online infringement is not digital release of the work, but digital redistribution by users. And a work can be redistributed digitally, regardless of whether it was originally released in digital or analog form. Analog books can be scanned digitally; analog audio can be recorded digitally; analog video can be camcorded digitally. The resulting digital copies can be redistributed.

(This phenomenon is sometimes called the “analog hole”, but that term is misleading because the copyability of analog information is not an exception to the normal rule but a continuation of it. Objects made of copper are subject to gravity, but we don’t call that fact the “copper hole”. We just call it gravity, and we know that all objects are subject to it. Similarly, analog information is subject to digital copying because all information is subject to digital copying.)

If anything, releasing a work a work in digital form will reduce online infringement, by giving people who want a digital copy a way to pay for it. Having analog and digital versions that offer different value propositions to customers also enables tricky pricing strategies that can capture more revenue. Copyright owners can lead the digital parade or sit on the sidelines and watch it go by; but one way or another, there is going to be a parade.


  1. I can’t add your feed to Feedburner. How I do this?

  2. Hey Biskit, that website of yours is hilarious man, I was laughing till my mouth was sore, ehehhe.

  3. Scott Craver says

    Recently I was talking with prof. Ed Delp about “the analog hole,” and we agreed that a better term might be “the plaintext hole.”

    After all, the “hole” in question is just a situation in which the work is not technologically restricted, and is basically in the clear. Analog has nothing to do with it.

    I find it amusing, by the way, that people can design a DRM system with a small protected domain, and call the enormous space outside of it a “hole.” This is like fencing off Yellowstone National Park with one fencepost, and thinking, “now all I have to do is close this one gap.”


  4. I still think that the reason not to buy Harry Potter books is because of the recent human rights abuse which J.K. Rowling has so far refused to distance herself from (see http://stallman.org/harry-potter for details and please note that Stallman isn’t asking for people to stop reading the books, just not buy them, although I’m sure there are better things to read out there).

    Rowling has the mic these days and she could do quite a bit to make sure that everyone’s right to read is maintained. Instead (as far as I can tell) she is silently benefitting from the ruling by gaining that much more power over Canadian readers.

    As for the lack of official electronic versions of Harry Potter, I won’t lose sleep if a billionaire forgoes any amount of money.

  5. Concurring with Sean, I typically use “analog hole” to refer to the required D->A process for any data on a digital system. It refers to the fact that the copy being made is not a digital, bit-for-bit copy, but is an analog, functionally equivalent copy.

    And yes, I won’t actually be able to focus on the content of anyone’s speech anymore. I’ll be busy trying to decipher the pattern of thee and thuhs.

  6. Major publishers won’t do e-books without DRM, and e-book DRM annoys customers.

    Why put your valuable brand name on something that annoys customers?

  7. Randy Picker says

    Hard to resist a Harry Potter post. I have comments on this at http://picker.typepad.com/picker_mobblog/2005/07/picker_copying_.html

  8. Sean Barrett says

    I don’t understand your explanation of the incorrectness of the term “the analog hole”. The analog hole is not about the fact that analog data is susceptible to digital copying; it is about the fact that analog data is not susceptible to DRM and yet “going analog” is mandatory for human consumption. Thus the analog hole is a hole in the theoretical chain of perfect end-to-end DRM (e.g. via “trusted computing”).

  9. Donald Jessop says

    I’m not sure if it is J.K. Rowling who said “no” to e-books. From the sometimes bizarre behaviour of the publishers involved, it could have been a decision that was out of her control or which someone did not ask her about.