Torture Report A Best Seller On Kindle, Despite Being Available For Free (And In The Public Domain)

from the you-can-compete-with-free dept

“You can’t compete with free!” is the mantra of a number of copyright maximalists — and no matter how many times we show them examples of people successfully competing with free, it’s still taken as inviolable law by some. Yet, here we are with yet another example of it happening anyway. As you know, last week the Senate Intelligence Committee finally released its CIA torture report (or, rather, the redacted version of the executive summary of the full report). It is a gripping read, and you can read the whole thing here (or embedded below). We can post it here for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the document is in the public domain, as a work of the federal government.

A little over ten years ago, we noted that the famed 9/11 Commission Report, despite also being in the public domain, had become a best seller in its printed version — even though it, too, was in the public domain. It appears something similar is happening with the CIA torture report. There is a Kindle version that costs $2.99, and despite the report being available as a PDF (which can be viewed on Kindle), the fee-based version of the torture report is the number one seller in the “intelligence & espionage” section (beating out James Risen’s recent book Pay Any Price). And this is happening despite the fact that people on Amazon are warning people not to buy the fee-based Kindle version, posting comments to tell them it’s just a PDF that’s available for free.

Yet, it appears that the convenience factor has made it worthwhile to an awful lot of people, who are willing to pay the money rather than figure out how to get the PDF onto their kindle. As we’ve pointed out for years, things like convenience and ease-of-use are real selling points — and it’s why things like Netflix and Spotify have been shown to decrease infringement — because it’s worth paying a little extra for a better-to-use system.

Meanwhile, physical copies of the CIA torture report are being rushed out with at least one publisher, Melville House, saying it will be out by the end of the year — though, I’d imagine others will follow suit. In Michele Boldrin and David Levine’s book, Against Intellectual Monopoly, they have a fascinating discussion on how publisher W.W. Norton made out wonderfully in being the first to publish a hard copy of the 9/11 Commission Report, despite not having to pay any copyright royalties:

The 81-year-old publisher struck an unusual publishing deal with the 9/11 commission back in May: Norton agreed to issue the paperback version of the report on the day of its public release.?Norton did not pay for the publishing rights, but had to foot the bill for a rush printing and shipping job; the commission did not hand over the manuscript until the last possible moment, in order to prevent leaks. The company will not reveal how much this cost, or when precisely it obtained the report. But expedited printings always cost extra, making it that much more difficult for Norton to realize a profit.

In addition, the commission and Norton agreed in May on the 568-page tome’s rather low cover price of $10, making it that much harder for the publisher to recoup its costs. (Amazon.com is currently selling copies for $8 plus shipping, while visitors to the Government Printing Office bookstore in Washington, D.C. can purchase its version of the report for $8.50.) There is also competition from the commission’s Web site, which is offering a downloadable copy of the report for free. And Norton also agreed to provide one free copy to the family of every 9/11 victim.

As Boldrin and Levine point out, according to copyright system supporters, this situation couldn’t possibly work out. After all, Norton is agreeing to publish a work that anyone can get for free, and which any other publisher (including the federal government) can offer for sale at a lower price. In fact, the book notes, a rival publisher, St. Martin’s, teamed up with the NY Times and got a second physical copy on the market just a couple of weeks after Norton’s physical copy, and priced it at $8.50. Clearly, Norton got a bad deal, right? And yet, Norton sold 1.1 million copies of the book, and donated $600,000 in “profits” from the book to charity. But, you know, you can’t compete with free (and public domain).

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Comments on “Torture Report A Best Seller On Kindle, Despite Being Available For Free (And In The Public Domain)”

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38 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Well earned schadenfreude

I think the best part of this, personally, is imagining the CIA tearing their collective hair out due to how many people are reading the thing.

Hell, the CIA Director would likely be more than happy to have the whole thing go away, now, yet with more and more people reading it, that’s not likely to happen any time soon, and it has got to be absolutely infuriating to them, something that just brings a smile to my face picturing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Well earned schadenfreude

I’m no so sure about that. Right now it seems the CIA story is working. Looks like people are believing the “it wasn’t torture”, “we got information” and “it is good because we do it” stuff.

http://www.people-press.org/2014/12/15/about-half-see-cia-interrogation-methods-as-justified/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Well earned schadenfreude

We discussed that flawed poll yesterday. There’s a lack of comparison made between the people who said torture “worked” and people who didn’t watch the story closely or who got their gospel truth from Fox News. The results could possibly indicate that ignorant people are ignorant. Those might not be the people who are inclined to buy the torture report, download it for free, or, much less, read it already. And that wouldn’t diminish the impact of other, more interested and educated voters keeping the topic relevant in the next election.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Well earned schadenfreude

It’s a laugh that you would think it’s an election issue. Since it’s inception, the U.S. has done it. Whoever is in the White House won’t change the past, present or future of the practice. I challenge you to name a country that doesn’t use these or similar tactics, and prove it. “Because they said so” doesn’t count.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Well earned schadenfreude

100% of people would be against it if themselves or their family members were the ones being tortured.

Have we forgotten the golden rule?
“Treat others as you would like to be treated”

When fighting terrorism turns into terrorizing terrorists you have failed at fighting terrorism.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

PDF is not ‘failing as a format’. It might be failing as an Ebook format, but then again that’s not why it exists. PDFs hold a very special place in contract law, ensuring that the document you see on the screen is the document the other guy saw. Without PDF, electronic transmission of contracts wouldn’t be possible, and PDF is of heavy use in that field.

As an accountant, I make heavy use of PDFs to send invoices, Recieve invoices, and keep electronic copies of all my important documents.

PDF is not failing as a format.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Satisficing and How Amazon Deals With Public-Domain Markup Merchants.

Well, you know about Herbert Simon’s theory of “satisficing,” don’t you. The theory of satisficing is that people don’t optimize– they find a solution which is merely good enough. For someone who doesn’t read very many books, a ten-dollar book isn’t going to break the bank. The significant thing is that a lot of people who would normally only read Harry Potter novels are reading the torture report. They are reading it through their usual channel for obtaining Harry Potter books, not surprisingly. People come closer to optimizing on things like groceries, which they consume a lot of.

Amazon has a considered policy that when it finds third-party merchants copying stuff from the public domain and listing it for sale on Kindle, Amazon puts out its own free edition to wipe out the profit. The catch is that Amazon has bureaucratic overhead, and can only work with big sources of widely read public-domain material, such as the Gutenberg Project, the Hathi Trust, and the Internet Archive. I suppose that by now, Amazon has probably worked out a general policy for explosive public domain government documents. Most government documents, you know, are dull as ditch-water. They approach a question in the most methodical possible way, with a maximum of statistical documentation. They are not for the Kindle market. Once in a great while, there is something like the Peers Commission report (My Lai) or the Kerner Commission report (1960’s race riots), or Oliver North’s Senate testimony in the 1980’s, which is so explosive that the general public is willing to look through the details. The traditional way to handle this kind of thing was to hand it over to a newspaper, which could print it up as a special supplement section.

There is another analogous issue which I have noted, that of mail-order Linux disks. Linux disks are at least public domain, but they are so big that it is often impractical to download them. What is needed is a means to get disks at an economic rate, say five dollars for a single DVD, eight for two DVD’s, ten for three, etc. Amazon’s rules tend to malfunction in this case. What is available on Amazon is a video DVD with a distribution disk thrown in, or something like that, for twenty or thirty dollars. What Amazon needs to do is to establish some kind of regular arrangement with the various Linux distributions, whereby they could upload their disk images to their accounts on a server, and a burn-to-order machines would automatically make and mail copies for customers. I used to get disks from a mom-and-pop business in California, CheapBytes, but they have gone out of business. That was on a hand-labor basis, of course. One time, the girl e-mailed me, to the effect that she knew I had ordered Mandriva 9 a week or two earlier, but Mandriva 10 had just come out, and did I want that instead? I did, and she sent it. What is wanted is a system which has all the different distributions, and all their releases, versions, binaries and/or source code, main disk and/or repositories, etc., neatly organized.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Satisficing and How Amazon Deals With Public-Domain Markup Merchants.

“The theory of satisficing is that people don’t optimize– they find a solution which is merely good enough.”

I am perhaps misunderstanding, but this sounds like optimizing to me. Using a “good enough” solution is very often the optimal solution when you take into account all of the factors (time, effort, risk, etc.) Why does it require a special term?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Satisficing and How Amazon Deals With Public-Domain Markup Merchants.

Well, conventional economic theory assumes optimizing. It tends to see the world as an imperfect stock market.It tends to see E-bay, and Uber, and AirBnB, as the natural state of things, and every departure from “efficient markets” as a sort of regrettable accident. Guys like Mike Masnick will have picked it up in Freshman Economics. Another thing: Economics pretends to be a science, but it is actually a kind of theology, a set of moral homilies, about how people should live, and that kind of thing.

Herbert A. Simon (1916 – 2001), who was a great many things, everything from economist to AI researcher, introduced the idea of “decision load.” One of Simon’s contemporaries was Ronald Coase (1910 – 2013), author of the “Coase Theorem.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_A._Simon
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Coase

By the way, this kind of thing comes out even more explicitly if you read Economic Anthropology, dealing with cases where trade is often wrapped in ritual and custom. Now, as applied to books, knowing about the prices of books is bound up with being a bookworm, it implies buying so many books that the price does matter. You know all the bookstores within twenty miles, and the personal circumstances of the proprietors, and whether they are interesting to talk to, because you are a bookworm.

I have a book somewhere by a fundamentalist Christian scholar which treats Coase’s work as an assault on Christian morality.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Satisficing and How Amazon Deals With Public-Domain Markup Merchants.

Well, suppose, you ate attempting to buy a floobidore, for your own use, and you have an offer of a floobidore for $10.40. Do you take the offer, or do you go shopping around for a cheaper floobidore at $10.39. That is approximately the difference between satisficing and optimizing. Or to put it another way, suppose that you are a commission agent, a factor, employed to buy floobidores, and your employer pays you a commission of twenty percent of the amount by which the price is less than $10.45 per floobidore. In that case, obviously, you do obsess about the difference between 10.39 amd $10.40. The stock market is full of pople engaged in various kinds of margin trading, who live or die on one-percent fluctuations.

Yoshord says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Satisficing and How Amazon Deals With Public-Domain Markup Merchants.

How much is your time worth to you?

I have an offer to exchange $10.40 for a floobadoor. Or I could spend several hours to possibly find a lower price. To me, an hour of searching for a floobadoor is worth more than a few cents. So, I am optimizing my utility by buying the floobadoor now.

Remember, economic theory says people optimize for utility, not price.

mattshow (profile) says:

This doesn’t surprise me at all, but to some people, the idea that you would pay money for something you can get for free is mind-blowing, no matter how much convenient the experience was for you. It’s just a matter of personal priorities.

I had a flight the other day and I realized while sitting in the departure lounge that I didn’t have anything to read on the plane. I pulled out my Kobo eReader, got on the airport wireless network and bought a copy of Don Quixote for $2. Don Quixote is in the public domain and there are tons of free versions floating around. I could have pulled out my laptop, downloaded a PDF and then transferred it to my eReader. But for me it was worth spending $2 for the convenience of getting the book quickly and easily and in a format that displays nicely on my Kobo.

A few days later I happened to mention this to a friend and he was STUNNED.

“But it’s free”
“Yeah, but the version I got displays nicely on the Kobo and I didn’t feel like pulling my laptop out of my bag and dicking around with USB cords in the departure lounge”.
“But…it’s free! Look, you can get it from Project Gutenberg or the Google Play Store”
“Yeah, but it was only $2 and it was more convenient to just get it from the Kobo store”
“But… you could have got it for free!”

We never did resolve our differences on that one.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

There's convenience and forced convenience

Yet, it appears that the convenience factor has made it worthwhile to an awful lot of people, who are willing to pay the money rather than figure out how to get the PDF onto their kindle. As we’ve pointed out for years, things like convenience and ease-of-use are real selling points

While I totally agree with the sentiment, this doesn’t strike me as the finest example. It sounds like people are paying for it because of the inconvenient, locked-up nature of the Kindle itself. Amazon’s (and, judging by other stories around here, the publishers’) insistence on a single, locked-down, DRM-ridden platform is what makes the “convenience” of buying it attractive.

In a truly level playing field, an e-reader that would take any e-book format you care to name, (it’s basically text for heaven’s sake!) and using any one of 5 dozen suddenly-popular e-book management programmes, would have long-since supplanted the Kindle and others like it. When you can use an easy bit of software that you use for everything else book-related to drop the free PDF straight onto your device, paying for this particular book wouldn’t look quite so attractive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: There's convenience and forced convenience

“It sounds like people are paying for it because of the inconvenient, locked-up nature of the Kindle itself…. When you can use an easy bit of software that you use for everything else book-related to drop the free PDF straight onto your device, paying for this particular book wouldn’t look quite so attractive.”

First, you can drop the PDF file directly onto the kindle by plugging in the kindle and copying the PDF into the documents folder. Or you can email it to your kindle, though most people probably don’t know their kindle’s address. There might be other ways, but I don’t know them. Either way, PDF is supported by the kindle.

Second, that one, easy bit of software is called calibre.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re: There's convenience and forced convenience

PDF is supported by the kindle

Well, if by “supported” you mean it can display it, sure. But it can’t re-flow it if you change viewing size for example, so it’s support is limited…. again many are likely to go for the “user friendly” option. (And yes, I know Calibre will convert, but we’re talking non-techies here)

Second, that one, easy bit of software is called calibre.

Fantastic piece of software, but hardly mainstream sadly. Plus, in the Kindle case, it’s great for getting stuff on and off and format conversions etc, but the Calibre meta-data, like series info for example, isn’t compatible.

This is my point – there’s no reason at all this stuff shouldn’t be as easily converted as the books themselves but I’ve only ever seen 1 app external to kindle that can manage “Kindle Collections”, and that was a bit of an abortion, presumably because of the stupid proprietary coding for it.
Oh, and how many people know that AZW is basically MOBI with a bunch of DRM added? Not something Amazon go out of their way to advertise…. in a sane world that’d be the top selling point “Hey you can buy this cool device and then get your books anywhere.”

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