The copying problem will grow even worse as books become electronic because copying electronic information is easier than paper copying, and it can be done without human labor. Once books are electronic then at some point the book must be decoded for the user to read. At this point it can be copied. Perfectly. Further, this copy's cost, being equivalent to the cost of the storage needed to hold the copy, is effectively zero. Finally, once a copy is made, both copies can be used at the same time; where there was once one copy there are now two separate and perfect copies.
Even if publishers try to avoid electronic copying by staying with paper, readers could scan their paper books into electronic form.
There are ways to copy protect electronic media in the short term (a year or so at a time), but they are soon broken by pirates. So there is an escalating copy protection cost. Further, copy protection is odious to some and may not gain wide acceptance for something as fundamental as a book. Finally, if books continue to cost more than it costs to copy them, then publishers and authors will always lose money to pirates.
Authors and publishers use copyright to protect their investment of time, creativity, and capital, but that protection is eroding rapidly. There is no long-term copy protection scheme suitable for marketable electronic books; the user can always scan the book and copy it perfectly. It will merely take longer to make the first copy.
Some publishers may price their books so high that they will profit even if only a few copies are sold. Today, some publishers charge libraries high prices on the principle that many people use a book at a library. But if publishers try either copy protection or high prices, or copy protection to enforce high prices, a breed of intellectual terrorists may arise, who will break their copy protection and anonymously distribute unprotected copies for free along the electronic networks (for example, see the NuPrometheus league discussed in ). And millions of people are reachable electronically. Of course, such a market also encourages pirates.
The problems facing the publishing industry seem insurmountable, if publishing proceeds as it does today except that books are electronic instead of on paper. But with a new view of publishing the apparently severe problems become opportunities. The only viable long-term solution is for publishers to make book buying cheaper or more convenient than book copying, as it used to be 5 years ago. Publishers can do so if they keep a stable number of captive readers and amortize costs over their entire list.