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Russian App Wants E-Book Piracy To End, Happily Ever After

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When it comes to online media, Russia is a country synonymous with digital piracy: Some reports say the amount of movies, television shows, books, software and music consumed online illegally in Russia costs U.S. companies billions of dollars each year.

The Russian government has taken a crucial step in tackling the problem by passing a law protecting the rights of TV show and movie makers. But the legislation has failed to include e-books — and Russia's largest publishing house says that up to 95 percent of all e-book downloads are pirated.

So, how do you solve a problem like literary piracy?

It's not too much of a plot twist to discover that a solution has come from Russia itself, a country with a rich literary tradition. One Moscow-based tech company has an answer that sees access to books as the next big streaming service — read: a Netflix or Spotify for books.

Dream Industries has created Bookmate, a subscription reading service. Instead of charging per e-book, Bookmate gives access to its library of more than 225,000 books — in English and Russian — for $5 a month. They're presented on an app that works on multiple devices and operating systems.

Simon Dunlop, a founder of Dream Industries, says Bookmate is more than just a reading service.

"Today, reading competes with many new services for a person's time: social networks, messaging, Twitter, online games," he says. "Bookmate ... puts books wherever you are online, creating a 'reading layer' across all your online activity."

The selection of books is as wide as Russia itself, stretching from the latest novels hot off the virtual printers, to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. You can share quotes from books you are reading or see what your friends are reading through Bookmate's social function.

The service is part of a larger trend of subscription e-book apps like Oyster and Scribd, but with a more global focus.

Although Bookmate was made in Russia, the company hopes to partner with publishers from the UK and U.S., expand into emerging markets and add considerably more English-language titles.

"Across six countries — Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and the Philippines — there are more native English speakers than in the U.S., UK and Canada combined, but at the moment we don't believe those readers are being served through traditional sales channels," says James Appell, head of global development at Bookmate.

With Bookmate, he says, publishers can reach "readers who previously either read pirated copies of these books or who didn't read them at all because they were unaffordable."

The business model works because Bookmate brings in a new revenue source: Publishers for the first time are able to gain income from markets that historically weren't willing to pay.

Dunlop says that the company thinks the social aspect changes the way that people read, too.

"When people have the chance to read many books in a shared and social environment, their reading behavior changes," he says. "Our readers read many more books simultaneously and share experiences with one another."

James Glynn is an intern at NPR's Moscow bureau.

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