Friday, February 02, 2007


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If you don't know that bullets can actually kill you, you can nonchalantly walk into a swarm of gunfire. Of course, you may be killed, just grazed, or damaged in some permanent manner, but that's another issue.

So it was when I took my copy of a pirated edition of 'Freakonomics' for Steven Levitt to sign. I bought it from a roadside seller on Moledina Road for 40 rupees. It was only much later, when several people said to me "You have some guts doing that", that I realised the foolish audacity which I had demonstrated. The author of the famed book had come to Emory University for a book signing and talk. He spoke to a jampacked, standing-room-only audience in Glenn Memorial Auditorium, which is basically a huge church used for hosting events like these. His talk, as expected, was witty and informative. Much of what he talked about was borrowed from the book, but even then the personal touch made it sound more interesting. Levitt has a friendly, nerdy look. He was dressed in casual business attire and spoke on the floor and not on the dias. When he describes his dismal performance in school and college math (he actually claims that he did not know the difference between the two 'd's in regular and partial derivatives, even in graduate school!), it's hard to believe that this is the same guy who was educated at Harvard and then got his PhD. at MIT.

The high-point was his story about how he is researching the economics of prostitution, and how he convinced a top-tier call girl to come and give a lecture in his undergraduate class at the University of Chicago. It was only after he told her that he would pay her by the hour at her standard professional rate (an enviable 400$ an hour) that she agreed to come and give a lecture, which many of the students later claimed was the best lecture they had ever heard during their time in college. So much for prostitutes...and college professors (This call girl by the way was a former computer programmer, who realised that this alternative business is far more financially lucrative)

In any case, there was a book signing following the talk, and I actually took my pirated version of 'Freakonomics' along.

Consider what I was doing; asking a best-selling author to sign an illegal copy of his book, a copy whose sale undermines and violates his copyright and is plain illegal, and whose sales constantly keep eating into his profits. There was a policewoman stationed near him. Why?, I asked myself. Then I remembered the abortion-crime rate drop correlation study he has famously documented in his book. That study had sparked some outrage, among conservatives as well as African-Americans, and it seemed fair to have an escort stand by his side in an Atlanta book signing. I convinced myself I would not have anything to do with the policewoman.

As I stepped forward after a wait of 45 minutes, everyone else had had their 'official' copy of the book signed by Levitt. When I thrust my pirated copy in front of him, a suspicious look immediately crossed his face. "What's this?!" he exclaimed, and I was ready to run away. "It's a fake! It's a fake!", he started saying loudly. Although I did not judge the gravity of the situation before, I had sort of anticipated this situation, and had already decided how to put a positive spin on it. "Yes" I said. "I got it from India, where we call that a pirated version. Thanks to its extremely low price, many more people who could previously not afford the book can now read it". In fact, this is my whole philosophy about pirated books. Even though I agree that it is illegal, I personally think that the great common good in this case outweighs the drawbacks. But try telling that to an author who is trying to make money from his book. I also think that in some ways, any honest author will admit that making money from the book is less important than having as many people as possible read it and learn. But who knows how much money they actually want from it?

In any case, Levitt quickly signed the book and I managed to talk to him for a few seconds. I asked him how easy is it to get funding for such kinds of studies in academic settings. He said that usually they don't cost a lot, so money is not a problem.

To be honest, I don't know whether he was angry about the book or not. At least he did not seem to be; after all, consider how much money he has already made from official sales of the volume. But as he himself says, economics is all about incentives, and piracy is not exactly an incentive for authors...

But it was only later when I stepped out of the building, that I saw what he had written:

"To Ashutosh
Enjoy this fake!"- Steven Levitt

This is going to be one memorable book on my shelf, no matter how much the content predictably fades over time! Maybe time for a Freakonomics 2 that includes a study on piracy economics, anyone??

CLARIFICATION: I want to make a few clarifications regarding the post. I am emphatically not touting the fact that I took a pirated copy along for getting it signed. What happened was that I learnt about Levitt's talk one day earlier. I had bought this copy in India only because I happened to be at Moledina Road and a friend of mine was also buying a copy. When I heard about Levitt's talk, this was the only copy I had, and it was too late to buy a new one. So the main driving force for going to the book signing was simply to get my copy of the book signed, as I would not have had this opportunity again. There was no motive at the time to specifically get a pirated copy signed. It was only later that I realised that the incident had been amusing. I want to make it clear that I am not especially proud of it, and no such feeling was in my mind when I was getting it signed. The primary motive of the whole enterprise was to get whatever copy of the book I had signed, because I admire the man and his writings. The signing was what was in mind, not the signing of a pirated copy.

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Blogger Melissa said...

Just happened to stop by here. My boyfriend, who got a dual degree in Math and Economics, has been trying to get me to read that book for about a year now. You've basically convinced me in about two minutes. Thanks.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Neelesh said...

That was an audacious could have been bad, but now it is a fantastic story (with evidence) for the grandkids [:p].

8:27 PM  
Blogger apu said...

"I also think that in some ways, any honest author will admit that making money from the book is less important than having as many people as possible read it and learn.."

And why would an 'honest' author need to be an altruist ? Would you expect KFC to give away their burgers so that more people could eat? I think really interested people could join a library to read?

11:54 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Melissa: Glad I could be of unexpected help!

Neelesh: Yeah...and probably Steve Levitt will also have a sour story to tell his grankids!!

Apu: You bring up a very good point and this is exactly what I was thinking about yesterday. The big problem in India is that there are no excellent public libraries like they have in the US, where people can read any number of books for free, or can become members for very less money. The public library is a great American invention, and if we had even a tenth of those in India, I would wholeheartedly support abolishing pirated books in a heartbeat. But in the absence of public libraries, and the complete lack of maintenance of even regular libraries, where is the lower middle class common man to turn to get his knowledge and information? That's my take on it.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Santhosh said...

I agree with you when you say that the book is overpriced. Most sellers (so called legal), fix the Indian price of US published books by multiplying the US$ price with the exchange rate. This does not take into account Purchasing Power Parity.
However, the Economist magazine ensures that its price, across countries is adjusted for PPP. While the Economist is published at 6$ in the US, in India it costs only Rs.100. So, a rough index can be calculated

= 100/(6*44) = .37

In other words, Freakanomics should be priced at 0.37 times the US$ price * the exchange rate

= 0.37*9.00*44 = Rs. 146

(9$ is the lowest price I found on Amazon for a new paperback)

I guess you must have done some haggling to reduce the price, before bringing it down to 40 (Thats a good deal). Of course, It does not take into account the margins for the publisher and the author. My argument is that even if those are taken into account, the book should be priced at Rs.146 and not Rs. 500.

So, Mr Levitt of all the people should not be concerned about fake. Its simple economics and may be in this case a little bit fo Freakanomics

11:11 AM  
Anonymous rishi said...

if you check out Steve Lewitt's blog, he wants to have a few pirated copies of his books. So he is offering to give a signed copy to anyone who sends him a pirated copy.

This is to all Indians to take him up on his exciting offer.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Ash said...

Did you have anything to do with this ? :)

7:26 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Santhosh: Thanks for the enlightening calculation! You are right, in any case the books cost more.

Rishi and Ash: Thanks for the link...but too bad I didn't know about it before! I could have demanded a new copy from him then!

7:55 AM  

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