Beating Free


February 1973 was a month of uncertainty for me. I was ready to graduate from college in a few months and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up” (a state of mind which continues, verily, to this very day!). I somehow found myself being interviewed by the head of an insurance firm, a very nice guy who sensed almost immediately, as I had, that putting me in his office would be inserting a round stick of dynamite into a square…well, office. We had a cordial conversation anyway, and at the conclusion of it he showed me a blocky machine that was hooked up to a television. “This,” he said, “is the future.” He picked up a rectangular object that looked like an audio cassette on steroids, inserted it into the machine, and turned on the television so we could watch a gentleman nervously give a lecture about actuarial tables and premiums and whole life insurance and the like. What I was being shown was something called a VCR in U-Matic format, the forerunner to Betamax and VHS and the grandparent to DVDs and yes, streaming. I was assured that within a few years there would be one of these machines, or something like it, in every home in the country. My new friend probably had no idea how that machine, and its descendents, would change things. I didn’t either, but I felt that ground move. This thing was a game changer.

I had the same feeling, and not in a good way, when I was wading through my emails yesterday and found a news release about a company named CzurTek (pronounced “SEE-zer Tek”) which has developed a relatively high-speed book scanner called “Czur” (just like Julius) which it appears to intend to sell for around $169.00 and which it is attempting to bring to market by crowd-sourcing.

czur scanner

The video of it is impressive, for sure; Czur does involve some human interaction, but nothing that a semi-sober fraternity brother couldn’t handle. There is a lot of talk about algorithms and the like that I didn’t understand but the legal part of me got went on high alert: the bad kind. I remember what happened, and is still happening, to the music industry, when CD players and copiers started appearing as basic equipment on home computers. “RIP AND BURN!” became the catchphrase of the day. It used to be that if you wanted to have a bestselling album you had to sell a million copies or more in a week. A lot of people did that, too. Now, not so much. You can hit the top of the charts on some weeks by bringing home unit sales of five figures. People don’t buy a lot of music anymore; they go to peer-to-peer sites or they stream it but they don’t buy a lot of it. It’s tough to beat free. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened fast enough that no one knew what was happening. I think that we are about to see the same thing happen, and with books this time. And it comes at a time when the industry, including the publishers and authors, can’t take the hit.

The folks at CzurTek know exactly what they are doing. The video I have linked you to above seems benevolent enough — there’s talk of copying rare and delicate manuscripts to preserve them, for but one example — but when you go to their Facebook page the 800-pound bear in the room is too much to ignore. Witness this, taken from the August 30, 2015 post off of CzurTek’s site, which infers that the idea for Czur sprung from the high cost of textbooks:

Normally one textbook is more than 100 dollars, and sometimes a professor will ask us to buy 6 or 7 of them.

In order to solve this problem, some of my schoolmates would buy second-hand books, or photocopy them. I once borrowed my roommate’s camera to take pictures of an entire book. It was really tiring, and hard to get high-quality pictures when the pages are curved.

Two years later….

in Shenzhen, we decided to have a go at solving this problem. After several attempts, we found that digitizing the books seemed to be the best approach. However, a book scanner costs tens of thousands of dollars, which is beyond the reach of ordinary people. So we decided to create one ourselves! Over the past 3 years, in the course of visiting numerous factories and testing our algorithm hundreds of times, we have turned ourselves into specialists in this area.


In other words, if a book is too expensive, just copy it. If it’s due back at the library and you’re not done with it, copy it. If the books are too darn heavy, copy them. Edit the text and put it in your essay! The CzurTek website even talks about building your own library for free, of course.

I’m not without sympathy, up to a point. College textbooks are extremely expensive. There are reasons for this, particularly with respect for those dealing with higher mathematics, biology, and physics, but that’s a topic for another time. But does the cost — or that they’re too heavy, or due back at the library — make it okay to steal them? Just copy them.

This isn’t the future. It’s already here. There are a bunch of book scanners on the market right now that don’t quite do the job well, but have the basics down. If Czur isn’t the gamechanger it appears to be, someone else will make one that is, and make it soon. The issue then becomes whether you want to spend a year of your life creating something that gets copied and probably illegitimately disseminated as soon as it is published, with no compensation to you. To go back to the music business: musical artists have found other revenue streams, such as licensing their music to film projects, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, tours, and the like. Their music? The newbies give it away, in the hope that someone will come to their concerts and buy merchandise. What are authors going to do? Tours? Please. Do you really think that someone is going to buy a ticket to listen to (fill in the blank) read or give a talk. Tee-shirts? C’mon.

I’ve prattled on a bit too long on this, and I apologize for that. I see this, however, as a significant problem. Am I Chicken Little? Or am I Dr. Miles Bennell? If I’m right, what are we — you, me, and the publishing industry — going to do about it? You tell me. And as for you folks at CzurTek…how would you feel about someone reverse engineering Czur, and giving it away for free? Sound good?


24 thoughts on “Beating Free

  1. This is scary stuff, Joe. Authors earnings are already declining according to many surveys.

    Would the Authors Guild and similar organizations in other countries, if they combined forces, be any help?

    I suppose the underlying problem is that many non-artists have no idea how much blood, sweat and tears we put into our work, i.e., there’s little or no respect for what we do unless we happen to make it big. We’re told to get real jobs or that since we’re not working, we’ll have time to do x,y and z around the house… you get the picture. Schools cut their music and art programs. Creative writing? You’re daydreaming.

    Why is it that patents are respected more than copyright? (Unless you’re an author trying to get your rights back from or to cancel a license you franted to a less-than-honorable publisher.)

    For many reasons, including this one, I suspect that I was born at the best possible time in human history. I pity a world where storytelling stops because the minute your work is published, you lose it. Not that most of the realist-writers out there think that we’ll get rich from our writing, but to earn no money at all from our writing? Many younger writers will stop writing, and without many miles of writing under our belts, what chance have we of greatness or creating great art?


    • Sheryl, I love your question concerning patents vs. copyrights. To give but one possible answer, oversimplified: it’s easier in these high tech to steal a copywrited work than it is to steal a patented one. We have an entire generation now that has grown up with the idea that somehow the enjoyment of artistic expressions should be “free,” which is why our friends at CzurTek don’t even blink when they talk about copying an entire literary work.

      As far as what could be done: to borrow, again, from the music industry, a penalty (what some folks politely call a “tax”) could be slapped on the sale of each one of these scanners, which would be distributed to the publishing industry and from there to the authors (I’ll wait a moment to let anyone reading this recover from their hysterical laughing fit….). similar to that which was placed on cassette tapes in the 1980s for similar reasons.

      And your observation about the general public’s impression of how much work is put into an artist’s product. They only see the end result on their television screens or through their earbuds or eReaders or books or movie houses. There is a lot of it out there but it didn’t get there easily.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, as always.

  2. Would this be another reason to publish digitally? Or will those publications be just as vulnerable?

    • Nancy, that’s a great question which could be the subject on another entire blog post and for which I thank you. The short answer is “no. The long answer, for those interested, follows. Digital publications — whether of music or literature — are extremely vulnerable to replication. Many vendors of digital works use something popularly called (Digital Rights Management) to stop this. DRM refers to a number of various technologies which are used to restrict the usage of or access to works that someone else owns. If you’ve ever borrowed a digital book from the library, and wonder how the library took it off your eReader after two weeks, a DRM program did that. DRM is why you can’t transfer those books on your Kindle to all of your friends (not that you would). Naturally, there are a whole host of people dressed in bathrobes sitting in their mothers’ basements in front of computers, writing programs to strip DRM out of protected works. I just did a quick search and found five different programs that purport to do just that.
      Naturally there will new and improved DRM programs, which the bathrobe guys will try to crack. It’s similar to what happened with radar detectors. When radar detectors first appeared on the market, law enforcement demanded better radar. With better radar came better radar detectors, which begat better radar, and so on.

    • Sue, thanks once again for visiting. To answer your question, it’s the attitude that entertainment should be free, and is free in the marketplace of the illegal. There are many discussions about this at intellectual property law seminars which present panels on “Copyright” (ownership of intellectual property) vs. “Copyleft” (artistic expression belongs to the masses). It’s not only authors, either. I know people who hack into Netflix because they don’t want to pay eight bucks a month to watch as many movies as they want/can in a month. Eight bucks. Here is another strange thing, that never made sense to me…back in the day when you had to buy ringtones that consisted of several seconds of your favorite song, there were people who were willing to pay $2.95 for a ringtone of a Mariah Carey track but wouldn’t pay 99 cents to download the entire work to their iPod! Oh, The Humanity!

  3. Just as there is innovation in piracy, why not innovation in security? Butch Cassidy was hounded and finally stopped by the Pinkertons, who took advantage of new technologies, like more sophisticated telegraph and even photography. They adapted and updated to take care of the problem. Why shouldn’t the digital security business adapt and grow in the same way?

    OTOH, there are claims, even from The London School of Economics, that piracy is not the economic or creative stifler that is feared.

    IMO, there will always be a large swath of the consumer public which prefers to play by the rules. If the price is too high (e.g., textbooks), and the consumer not exactly rolling in dough (e.g., student), the temptation is greater. But in the main I believe there will always be a marketplace.

    In the meantime, what should writers do? Keep writing.

    • Jim, it’s always nice to have you manifest yourself on a Saturday. Thanks for stopping by. You’re right about the innovation in security — see my radar detection example in response to Nancy’s question, above — but it’s a constant game of catch up and in the meantime a lot of product — and potential profit — is going out the back door, so to speak. One effect that’s occurred in music is that while musicians can tour and thus keep that stream of income flowing, songwriters who don’t perform cannot. Songwriting used to be a particularly lucrative profession. It is no longer, particularly in Nashville. My concern is that at some point — particularly with what appears to be a drop in author earnings recently — some otherwise very worthy storytellers are going to consider and pursue other vocations to the exclusion of writing, by virtue of economic mandate. I know of two — names many of us would know — who are doing just that. I think we need to at last be aware of what is going on, and see if we can get ahead of it. It won’t be easy.

  4. Pirates come in all sizes, from the little guy who simply wants a single copy to read, to the thief bent on making money from another person’s labor. Fantasy author Lindsay Buroker, on her blog, recently described receiving notification that one of her Amazon Select offerings was being offered on other retailers, thereby violating Amazon’s TOS. When she checked, she found her work (exactly as she publishes it: title, author, ISBN, etc) had been uploaded by a pirate on Google, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and Digital2Digital. She’s not the only author that’s happened to.

    I’ve seen speculation that the reason Google is having ‘technical difficulties’ with their indie upload portal is because they were having big problems with pirates uploading works they didn’t own so they shut the portal down. It’s still possible for indies to get on Google by using a distributor, but I believe that if a pirated work gets through, it becomes the legal liability of the distributor and not Google.

    • K.S., I won’t say that you’re totally correct that “if a pirated work gets through, it becomes the legal liability of the distributor…”. I will say that I totally agree with you. And you know what? We’re both wrong. Sort of.

      Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) a digital distributor of pirated material gets a pass, initially. The cat is on the back of the rightsholder to contact the distributor/service provider, sending a takedown notice. The distributor is then required to promptly investigate the complaint and take the bootleg work down. The problem is with the terms “promptly” and “investigate.” It can take months to get movement on these complaints. This is particularly a problem for creators of phone applications, who are frequent targets of pirates. Eventually, if nothing is done, one can bring a civil action in U.S. District Court. It can be years before a litigant gets a result.

      Again, I agree with you. The law would also be better if it gave the distributor a time certain to comply. But it doesn’t work that way. Thanks for raising that interesting and very pertinent point.

  5. I s’pose, like many things, it was just a matter of time… not that I like or agree with it…

    Sheryl’s point is well made re: compensation (I won’t go so far as calling it a “living wage” in the current PC jargon).

    Still, though, despite being unpublished, I write…

    My songwriting nets me a solid low three figures in royalties (as background music no one hears – I wanted to earn just enough to pay my boys’ ways through college~ seems I’m doing that for books one semester at a time).

    And the current state of popular (as opposed to “pop”) music, at least recorded and radio-played (read ” revenue generating “), is depressing in its sameness and lack of quality~

    Still, though, I write…

    I’m fortunate to have a day-job I enjoy, that keeps me more than occupied and satisfies most of my creative drives…

    Still, I write…

    During the run-up through tape to mp3 players, there was talk of adding a surcharge to each machine to ” pre-pay” any copyright royalties ~ but that go quashed not only for the added cost, but the complicated nature (and algorithms?) required to calculate who would get how much and when – all of this was pre-e so tracking would’ve been “analog”…

    Sorry to pontificate (or blather) so… In short, I’ll write because that’s what I do… And if I get paid for (or copied because it’s worth copying), that’s a bonus- even if it doesn’t pay much -or anything.

    • G., you’re not blathering at all, at least until you run out of space, which doesn’t happen around here. I don’t want people to stop writing, or playing music, or creating, either, and I don’t want to discourage them. They need, however, to be informed as to what is out there. I remember one author who sounded the alarm years ago when he found his books on peer to peer sites and was furious. Nobody listened. Now the wolf is at the door, trying to figure out a way into the house. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. Good morning, Joe.

    Thanks for discussing this very disturbing trend and Czur Tech.

    Like, Jim, I would ask, why not innovation in security. The software companies seem to do a good job of protecting their software packages. Microsoft continues to be extremely successful. When I buy an update of Microsoft Office I have to purchase a key code. I am led to believe that the key code allows me to use the software on only so many computers. Could not the same technology be used on ebooks to prevent pirating?

    And as for your idea of reverse engineering Czur Tech’s “pirate looter”, I would be in favor of a “Hartlaub Tax” on each book published. The money from said tax would fund a scorched earth, all out war on those who infringe on the copyrights of authors.

    • Actually, the software companies have just as much trouble with pirates (if not more, considering the prices of their products) as indie authors. Search for any product from Adobe, Microsoft, or other companies and you’ll find plenty of dodgy deals available.

      Steam, a major supplier of computer games, has a very tough system to prevent pirating. Because of how onerous the protection becomes, many gamers won’t purchase if the game is on Steam. If they do purchase, they howl with indignation about the hoops they jump through to play. It’s hard to find a balance between protection from piracy and locking down the work to the extent that the user is stuck on just one device to access it.

    • Good afternoon, Steve! KS beat me to the draw on a number of points, which I also discussed above with Nancy vis-a-vis the “radar/radar detector” dance that has been going on for decades. The same thing happens with Microsoft, and their weekly program and security updates. Re: Office…there are students at that huge university to the south of us who could would cut through that security key and access Office faster than you or I could type the key in the field (well, maybe just me. I can’t type for anything). Now they don’t have to. Microsoft Office is available to students for free now. Microsoft gave up. And it’s not guys like you and me who are the problem. We don’t have the mad skills to go and do something like that, but even if we knew someone who did, we’d plunk down out money and pay for the software because that’s what we do. Not everyone, alas, feels that way, and when Microsoft or whoever ups their game and builds a higher or thicker wall, it becomes a challenge to go over or around or under or through it because it’s there. And so far, they are succeeding.

      Hope you are well. Thanks as always for stopping by!

  7. Great post, Joe, as always. It seems to me that copyright issues have been around for a long time, but it is just easier to pirate now. I worked as a One Hour Photo manager with Wal-Mart for twenty years until they cut that position and blended the labs in with the electronics departments with self service digital machines. When the color scanners came out, I daily battled customers who tried to copy professional portraits to get cheaper prints. The prevailing view was “I paid for it why can’t I copy it?”. They could not conceive of the need or purpose of copyright. Didn’t even understand the word, referring to photos as “copywritten”. When I tried to explain the need to protect the income of photographers and writers, they couldn’t see it. Yet they wanted the products, just didn’t like paying for them.

    I see it as part of the entitlement mentality that so pervades our society now.

  8. Dave thank you for stopping by and, once, again, for your kind words. And yes, yes, yes, the bigger overall problem here is the entitlement mentality. Two quick, true stories that are illustrative:

    1) I was trying to explain to a young woman that any business owner, large or small, faced the issue of “fixed costs,” those expenses such as basic rent, utilities, and the like that have to be paid day in, day out, whether business is good or bad. She responded, “What has that got to do with me? I didn’t break them!” She was serious.

    2) I at one point in my checkered law career handled a great number of cases where I was paid on contingency: if I won, I received a percentage of the recovery. If I didn’t I got nothing. This was fully explained to the client, of course, at the commencement of my representation. I had a number of clients who, once I had successfully represented them, couldn’t understand why I needed to be paid. “Why should I pay you?” they would say. “You have a job!” This happened less than frequently but more than occasionally. One even told me, seriously, that if I was paid the agreed-to fee he wouldn’t be able to make a payment on his boat.

    Consumers of entertainment, more and more, feel as if their books, music, films, etc. come out of the air. And the air, of course, is free.

  9. Not to sound quaint and old-fashioned, but isn’t the copying of books illegal? I would put it in the same category as downloading films (or books) from “pirate” websites; honest people won’t engage in that type of behavior. I think there will be a big push to restrict this type of technology from being abused–especially from textbook publishers. I do think people will “stream” books more in the future, a la Kindle Unlimited.

    • Kathryn, count me as old-fashioned as well (there are some who would probably call it “undocumented use,” but that’s a discussion topic for another place and time). I call it flat-out stealing. It’s no different from taking a book or record or DVD or whatever off of the display rack and putting it under your jacket and doing the dash down the mall concourse. The person doing it is taking food out of the artist’s mouth. Thanks for stating what should be obvious, but all too often is apparently not. As far as keeping the technology from being abused….I would hope so, but I fear the textbook publishers are going to get some pushback from some (not all) segments of academia who to at least some extent partially share the entitlement mindset. We’ll see how it plays out. It’s like the Wild West out there at the moment, however. Thanks again.

  10. That would be a big problem. It would probably be considered fair use if you purchased (& kept the book) and copied it for personal use. I can even see them marketing it that way. It would be cool and “fair use” again if they had it hooked up to something that could read it to you (for those who would like or desperately need an easier way to handle and use books, if they can see or read them… With OCR it could also probably very simply be hooked up to present a brail version for someone as well. So good could be done.

    Honestly, there should be some looks and “cost” control reality in college publishing… Most of those texts are unreasonably high and often they aren’t so helpful, because if you are reading a book by the teacher and you don’t “get” the teacher, you don’t get a different perspective or different way of it being explained in your book. It is just a reguritation of what you already heard and took notes on. Unfortunately college texts are often a forum for the prof to force his own product & point of view on you, not always to help you in your learing or because it would be the best tool for you. Sometimes it can feel like a definite “conflict of interest”. And don’t even get me started on the ones that release a “new” version # every year so you can’t even turn them back in and get any of your money back!

    I worked at a copy shop when I was at college and amazingly the people that would bring text books in and want you to copy them (which we couldn’t and wouldn’t do) – but we couldn’t stop them from using the self-serve machines… were generally the foreign kids, the scholarship kids, and the kids with dad’s money that didn’t have to “cheat” and copy the book- they could actually afford them!

    Now-a-days, there is no reason they shouldn’t automatically “give” you an e-copy with purchase (fair use and practical). And maybe the schools should have a “text book fee” you pay for the semester, get an e-copy of your books that is only good for the semester- then it expires and you don’t have them anymore, unless you want to purchase a full-rights book. You would basically be paying a rental fee.

    Anyway- yes… This could be used for good, but probably will be used to “cheat” just as you said… After they scan their books in, the same people will return the scanner for a full refund… That might be the only thing aproximating karmic justice that might occur.

    • Several interesting points, here, Penny, particularly your mention of Fair Use. A recent Eleventh Circuit case (Katz vs. Cheveladena) has elevated Fair Use from an affirmative defense to a right, if established, and required the issuer of a take down letter to demonstrate that they have actually considered Fair Use applicability before requesting the takedown on the infringed work. In the instant discussion, however, the creators of Czur were pretty upfront about their motivation: reproducing copyrighted works and passing ’em out. That would certainly affect the marketability of the work, which would move it out of Fair Use.

      Are some college textbooks overpriced? Oh yeah. I’m speaking as the father of a daughter who is a junior in college. I can understand the price of hard science textbooks, which require an inordinate amount of proofreading as well as those cutaways and transparencies, particularly in biology. There is also the need in some fields, such as physics, to constantly update texts, some of which, alas are outdated before the semester ends. That being said…$75.00 for a collection of literature consisting of stories in the public domain? $90.00 for an intro to philosophy book written by the professor offering the course (these are somewhat extreme examples and not necessarily reflective of my daughter’s expeiriences. But they’re close!)? Here is an actual example, however, of something that actually occurred…my daughter’s campus bookstore has been purchased by a major chain which we will call for these purposes “Barneys & Chernobyl.” B & C offered for sale a “used etextbook” for a certain course at a certain price. We ordered it, only to be told some days later that B & C was out of the “used etextbook” and we’d have to buy a “new one,” at an increased price ($35.00 more). I was going to storm the Bastille but my daughter begged me not to, as my very existence embarrasses her and we didn’t want to increase the magnitude. Given that, I can understand, and perhaps sympathise, with the folks at CzurTek. Copying textbooks and passing them out is tempting. But, it would be wrong.
      Thanks so much for your extremely interesting comments, Penny, and please forgive my overlong response.

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