March 18, 1996

Book Publishers Worry Over Threat of Internet


PARIS -- Officially, "Le Grand Secret" remains a literary state secret, a physician's tortured confessional disclosing the elaborate deception to hide the failing health of Francois Mitterrand and the vagaries of his prostate.

The former French president's grieving family has scorned the book and a French judge has banned it for privacy violations. But these state secrets are the world's to share with a few computer keystrokes to Internet web sites with the complete text, graphics and a gloomy image of Mitterrand, his mouth muffled by tape. Still in preparation is the English version, which is being translated by eager Internet volunteers in Pennsylvania, California and Britain.

"My first reaction when it happened was well-done, well-played," said Olivier Orban, the director of Plon Publishing, which sold 40,000 copies of the book in the week before it was banned in January.

"But then I realized the danger on the Internet for all books in the future. We can't protect the author and the copyright. I think we have no means to fight against it."

The same cold chill of anxiety has stricken publishers in the United States who contend copyright infringement on the Internet is the most critical threat facing the industry.

Worried publishing executives are pressing for new legislation that will tighten copyright restrictions on the Internet and impose penalties for violations of as much as $500,000 in fines and five-year jail sentences.

Later this month, the Senate Judiciary committee will hold a hearing on the proposed legislation, focusing on the piracy of books on the Internet along with music, videos and software.

Some fiction publishers insist that it is not a major problem, arguing that few people are willing to curl up with a computer to savor a novel or pay for the paper and toner to print out "War and Peace."

Most in the industry are worried about potential threats, particularly the refinement of scanning technology that could speed the electronic transmission and distribution of runaway underground best sellers.

"Just as we teach our children not to steal toys, just as we teach our children not to plagiarize, we have to get across the message that you don't steal from the Internet," said Barbara Munder, a senior vice-president of McGraw-Hill publishing, who testified before a congressional committee on the issue in February.

Simon & Schuster, the largest publisher in the United States, is not even waiting for Congress to vote. It has hired a computer team of cybercops whose sole task is to prowl the Internet for new ideas and purloined books.

Pirated books on the Internet amount to "leakage," at this point, said Jonathan Newcomb, president of Simon & Schuster. "But the potential is clearly there to be an issue beyond ones we've seen -- for hemorrhaging," he added.

In some cases, books are already starting to run away. Within minutes it is possible to retrieve the science fiction classic by Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" from web sites in Finland, Australia and Germany. It takes nine minutes to download and copy the 109-page guide on a high-speed printer.

At least five chapters of Howard Stern's best seller, "Miss America," surfaced briefly on a web site until the publisher HarperCollins demanded its removal.

"Le Grand Secret," written by Mitterrand's personal physician, Charles Gubler, is one of the first commercial books widely available on the Internet. Plon Publishing ultimately decided to take no action for copyright infringement because the book is banned.

"In a normal circumstance it is a theft," Orban said, "but in these circumstances we couldn't have the same judgment."

At least 800 users have logged onto the British web site and "Le Grand Secret" sites have also spontaneously surfaced in Canada and California. And 2,000 thousand people have signed onto the Pittsburgh page created by Declan McCullagh, a student at Carnegie-Mellon University who describes himself as an Internet activist devoted to free speech and censorship issues.

His readers are the world's curiosity seekers like Eric Harrati, a French resident who downloaded the book and distributed copies to friends. "It really made people understand here in France how efficient the Internet could be, he said. "And I understand that it could scare people."

In Switzerland, Bruno Giussani downloaded a few pages of the book partly out of curiosity and partly for the boasting rights of ownership.

When Damien Schmidt in France could not download the book from a French web site where users were logging on at the rate of 200 an hour, he turned to the Pittsburgh site.

Despite the rapid spread of the book, the flight of "Le Grand Secret" was not smooth. Near the Swiss border in France, the owner of a cybercafe -- which combines food and computers for its customers -- scanned the entire book onto his web site, but the system was so overloaded by users that it crashed. Eventually, McCullagh obtained an electronic copy, but to reduce the size of the computer-scanned text he enlisted a volunteer to laboriously type the entire book into the computer.

"It takes quite a bit of effort to transmit a book on line," said McCullagh, who made the effort precisely because "Le Grand Secret" was banned. "It's not cost effective for net users to type in the latest Tom Clancy novel because it's not worth it. I think the message to send countries is if you don't ban books, they won't show up on the net.

"Anyone can publish and it means everyone who publishes should be concerned about copyright issues if they want to be paid for their work," he said."But it's important to remember that copyright does apply to the net and so I want to be clear that there's really no cause for panic or cause for copyright hysteria."

Publishers may not be feeling panic, but they are clearly edgy about the prospects of new technology, which many consider as potentially significant as Guttenberg's development of moveable type.

Their chief concern is the improvement of computer technology that will make it easier and faster to scan books.

In statements to the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property Rights, the Association of American Publishers fretted about a new world: "although not wanting to be melodramatic, publishers do fear for their future, and the well-being of their authors, when looking at a world with low-cost, east-to-use ubiquitous scanners, copiers and binders."

The publishers group commissioned several studies on the issue, including one that concluded that there is no practical way to "unilaterally prevent" unauthorized distribution of books.

Instead the association is pressing for methods to detect copyright violations with a "uniform file identifier system."

It is essentially a license plate on copyrighted work that contains the publisher's name and the identity of the person who purchased the work. The publishing industry is backing legislation before the House and Senate to make it a criminal and civil offense to alter these cyber license plates. Even they are not quite sure what form the identifying codes will take, but they do know they want them.

The same legislation would also impose penalties on manufacturers of "black boxes" which disable encryption methods locking out free-loading customers.

So far none of Simon & Schuster's 64 best sellers from last year have turned up on the electronic highway. But in the last six weeks, its hired internet monitors discovered several web sites offering a title that the company formerly published in the 1970s, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Ballantine Books, which presently holds the rights to the book, is investigating.

Two years ago, Simon & Schuster's lawyers sent a warning letter to a student demanding the removal of a copy of "The Star Trek Chronology," which was posted on a web site in Germany. The book abruptly vanished.

But despite the very public fears of publishers, the Internet is already being used heavily by major publishers with dozens of corporate web sites that seek to whet literary appetites with chapter excerpts.

Time Warner Electronic Publishing is running a serial novel on the Internet with no print edition planned. Its goal is to establish an Internet presence with the electronic version of "Delirium."

Some publishers are holding back, fearing that if they post professional journals or highly specific technical material it will be easily distributed to hundreds with a few keystrokes.

"Before we put all our journals on line, we want to feel some degree of comfort," said Dick Rudick, the general counsel for John Wiley & Sons, which is testing the electronic market with the posting of its Journal of Image-Guided Surgery. "Some of the most valuable intellectual property is terribly vulnerable."

Next week American and French publishers will debate the electronic future and "Le Affaire Gubler" with several Internet seminars at the Paris book fair, which is spotlighting American publishing.

Gubler, the physician who has ignited much of the debate, remains completely unfazed by the flight of "Le Grand Secret." He considers himself a physician first, who wrote a controversial book that history will judge. He is simply pleased that the information has gotten out -- in whatever form.

His publisher, Orban, is less sanguine. "Before 'Le Affair Gubler' most of my colleagues were indifferent to the Internet," he said. "This has hit us like an earthquake."

He is unsure if there is a solution: "The next step? Well, in France there will be a commission formed."

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