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An Ebook Piracy Mystery

For the most part, the ebook pirates have forgotten about me. Five or six years ago, I was all over the pirate sites. Now I’m not even on the Pirate Bay, and haven’t been for some time. Binsearch shows that the last time I was uploaded to Usenet was almost a year ago. It’s enough to give a guy a complex. (It’s certainly enough to make me feel like I need to write more books.)

So last week the backchannel sent me a link to an article about how several major textbook publishers have subpoenaed a couple of Usenet service providers demanding the identities of two prolific Usenet uploaders operating under the pseudonyms Rockhound57 and HockWards. Both upload technical books to a certain newsgroup devoted to technical nonfiction.

Boy, do they.

I fired up my newsreader and took a look. I’d been there before, and have gladly downloaded crufty scans of old Heathkit and classic tube gear manuals and the occasional supreme oddity, like the German-language service manual for the Nazi V-1 flying bomb. There are scans of military field manuals and much other odd junk, plus all the spam, trollery and asshattery we’ve been accustomed to seeing in newsgroups since, well, there were newsgroups. (I first got on Usenet in 1981.) Rockhound57’s posts are, for the most part, academic science books of almost vanishing narrowness. If you’re ever curious about Dipetidyl Aminopeptidases in Health and Disease, well, Rockhound57’s got it. Ditto Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings. I actually thought that “cobordism” in Algebraic Corbordism was a typo. Then I looked it up. Man, if you can make head or tail of that one, you’re a better geek than I.

If you think about what those books (and they are indeed books, and not articles) have in common, you may understand some panic on the part of the big presses: Those books have very, very small audiences and very, very high cover prices. Algebraic Cobordism has a cover price of $99. Small potatoes. Hold on to your manifolds: Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings will cost you $269. I’m not exaggerating when I suggest that there are maybe 500 people on Earth who might conceivably buy such books, most of them starving graduate students. (I suspect that the publishers make what money they make selling to university libraries.) Having perfect PDFs flitting around on Usenet is an academic publisher’s worst nightmare.

But that leads us to a very important and completely unanswered question: Where did all those perfect PDFs come from? Not a single one of the titles I spot-checked is available as an ebook on Amazon. These copies are not slap-it-on-the-glass pirate scans. They are as perfect as the print images we used to generate for our books at Coriolis and Paraglyph. If they’re not being sold, how did the pirates get them to begin with?

I can think of a couple of possibilities:

  1. They’re DRM-stripped versions of e-texts that aren’t sold on Amazon but rather through heavily protected textbook sales channels like Adobe’s.
  2. They’re the print book equivalent of “screeners,” sent out for review, proofing, indexing, etc.
  3. They’re downsampled print images lifted somewhere along the pipe leading from the publisher to the printing presses.

My gut is going with #2, though #3 is certainly possible. Publishing services have been thoroughly commoditized. Most publishers use freelancers for proofing and editing, and many outsource layout itself. Any time a print image goes outside a publisher’s doors, there’s the chance it will “get legs.”

That said, I boggle at how many perfect PDFs were uploaded by those two chaps. We’re talking literally tens of thousands. Are there that many leaks at the major presses? Or is something else going on here? I still can’t quite figure it. I do know that a number of backchannel sources have told me that ever more file sharing is being done locally and off-Net, often by passing around now-cheap 1TB SATA hard drives. There’s no stopping that. Publishers need to start taking a very close look at their own internal processes. Pulling production back in-house might help, but it wouldn’t be a total solution, at least as long as desktops have USB ports. Problems don’t always have solutions, and piracy is probably one of those increasingly common nuisances.

There were times when I miss being in publishing. Alas, there are other times when I’m glad I’m not.


  1. Tom R. says:

    Your missing/not missing the publishing business resonates well with my feelings about being an Information Security Officer for a State agency with 20 Internet Facing servers and clueless politicians for management.

  2. Bob Fegert says:

    Do a google search with the two terms

    Rockhound57 and geologist

    An interesting twitter page of a geologist turns up as
    the first link.

    There is a photo at the link.

    I know that rockhound57 is a geologist since this person
    often asked for people to post geology books.

    How many geologists could there be who go by the handle Rockhound57.

    No posts by Rockhound since 12 June

    1. The word “rockhound” is fairly common. I know people who had to add numbers as high as 500 after a word to get an email address on AOL. I went out and googled rockhound56, rockhound55, and rockhound54, all of which exist as logins. So the poor woman might well be just another geologist who was the 57th person to be want to be “rockhound” on Twitter.

      The number of files posted on Usenet by rockhound57 is nothing short of astonishing. (75,000? 100,000?) I find it hard to believe that anyone with a day job could post that much stuff–or for that matter, any single individual. I haven’t read any of the textual posts by that uploader, so I didn’t see anything calling for geology books. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

      Traffic on that newsgroup has basically stopped.

      1. Bob Fegert says:

        Yes, that group is a ghost town now 🙂

        I had not considered that 57 might be a number added to a
        popular name. I thought maybe it was a birth date..1957.
        But then that lady does not look quite that old.

        I wonder if the usenet provider divulged details about the user rockhound? Some usenet providers actually don’t know who their
        subscribers are. Some pay using anonymous means and some usenet providers don’t keep access logs at all….so they can’t be forced to give up an ip.

        But then there is the fact that the posting stopped…but they may have just disabled the account.

        BTW It costs nothing to post on usenet, posting is free, only downloads are charged. Some usenet providers sell cheap and non-expiring access by the GB…so the rockhound character might have paid a few dollars years ago for all that access.

        I bet the NSA has all the logs…lol

  3. Dominic Peterson says:


    I’ll add a vote in favour of your first hunch. I work for a University and many of our Journal subscriptions and obscure texts are now made available electronically, under a range of different DRM regimes.

    If rockhound57 works at an educational institution, they would have easy access to an enormous store of high quality eBooks. If they worked in the right area, they could probably even just script the upload process, explaining how one individual could find the time to upload 100k titles.

    1. Hadn’t thought of that specifically, but it could make a lot of sense. Of course, the mystery uploader would have to have access to non-DRMed files, which I could well understand if the person were somehow working for the university.

      Again, we’ll probably never know. I do agree that things like this are almost certainly inside jobs.

  4. I suspect that the mystery binaries uploader Rockhound57 was an activity initiated by the late Aaron Swartz as part of his efforts to distribute knowledge on a global level. More information about him can be found at numerous sites.

    1. I don’t honestly think so. Rockhound57 had apparently been uploading stuff to Usenet for over ten years. His answers to questions didn’t sound like Swartz; they were too calm, too homespun, and (most important) too indifferent to politics. I think he was a sharp guy with nothing much else to do in his free time. I suspect he got much of his material hand-to-hand, by the hard drive full, and just made the uploads automatic.

      It doesn’t look like he’s been caught. There’s nothing out there on him at all. Nothing. That’s surprising all by itself.

      1. Gabriel S says:

        Someone alleging to be Rockhound made a single post to the newsgroup a few months after the book publishers subpoenaed his Usenet provider.

        The post was very plausible: It said he was contacted by the law firm that filed the subpoena demanding a seven-figure settlement.

        He demonstrated financial hardship and was able to get the settlement reduced. He sounded grateful just to have avoided criminal charges.

  5. mary says:

    I have access to some raw archival usenet spools from that time period. It seems pretty clear to me that the OP was an IT person or programmer or at least had access to a shell account in an IT department.

    A programmer would be able to script automatic posts to account for the prolific volume. And a programmer at an acadmeic institution IT department, software publisher, Topsite or large private tracker would have access to the material.

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