ABU DHABI // Publishers fear online piracy of music and movies could spread to books, fuelled by the rise of electronic readers and e-books.
And the Middle East could feel the biggest impact as readers turn to illegal downloads because the content they want is not easily available to buy, industry experts at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair said yesterday.
Peter Balis, director of digital content sales for the publisher John Wiley & Sons, said piracy often thrived when material was not easily accessible, as was often the case with Arabic content in electronic formats.
"People will most of the time choose to pay for something if it is affordable and easy enough to access," he said. "As publishers, shame on us for not giving an individual an opportunity to pay for it and consume it the way they want to, legally."
Mr Balis said most online piracy of books involved paper pages being scanned and uploaded, rather than e-books.
"There will always be the people who will steal, and our books are going to be pirated every day," he said. "The goal is to address those in the middle ground, who download occasionally because they feel they have to when the content is not available in the language or the format that they want."
Digital rights management controls for copyright protection, such as passwords or serial numbers, are only partly reliable, Mr Balis said.
Publishers who refused to digitise books because of piracy fears were doing a disservice to readers that did nothing to stop people from illegally uploading pages, he said.
Mr Balis spoke on a panel at the book fair yesterday with Salah Chebaro, chief executive of the Lebanon-based online Arabic bookshop neelwafurat.com.
There is a particular threat to the industry in the Middle East because "the piracy laws are harder to apply here than they are in places like the US", Mr Chebaro said. "There is also a cycle here of a new youth, many people unemployed, and those in developing countries putting up content where the rules are vague.
"People consider it spreading knowledge or spreading religion, and it has become a mass piracy project that makes these people feel like heroes."
Mr Chebaro suggested that the publishing industry call on local internet service providers to block file-sharing sites to combat illegal downloading.
Kait Neese, director of book marketing for the US-based Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, said piracy was inevitable. It could also be positive for smaller authors and publishers, who may gain visibility.
"This is similar to when someone buys a book and gives it away, or donates it to a library or a book club," she said. "A New YorkTimes bestseller will be hurt in terms of sales, but for an unknown author, viewership may increase and put their name out there, leading others to buy their books."
Mr Balis cautioned against crediting piracy for an increase in sales. It is impossible to know what other factors such as marketing were in play, he said.
The Amazon Kindle, Sony EReader and Apple iPad were among the e-readers at the Service Providers area and eZone, featured at the international publishing event for the second year.
The book fair continues until Sunday.