In yesterday’s Publishers Weekly, Jim Milliot reported on a new study of online book piracy done by a company called Attributor. According to Attributor, publishers “could be losing out on as much as $3 billion to online book piracy.” On the face of it, this is bad news for publishers. We all know what Napster did to the music industry. And it sure would be nice to have that $3 billion back, no? But reading further into the report, we learn that the average number of free fiction downloads was just over 2,000 copies. Wait a minute. 2,000 copies? Is that a bad thing? It isn’t unusual for publishers to give away more than 2,000 advance reading copies of a piece of new fiction. Why? Because we want people to read the book and tell other people about it. And what about libraries? Don’t we sell copies to libraries that they then lend out over and over again—for free? How much money are we “losing” to free reading in libraries? (I shudder to think of how my wife and I may have contributed to the problem, taking our children to the library every Saturday and letting them each take out ten books. Who knew that we were raising a bunch of pirates?) Furthermore, how much money are we losing to people who lend a friend a book they’ve just read, saying, “You have to read this book!” We’d better put a stop to that right away…

We need to protect our author’s copyrights, and make sure that we don’t get Napstered by massive illegal online distribution. But small quantities of people reading our books for free may not be harmful, and may actually promote literacy, and the joy of reading…and the business we’re so worried about protecting.