What’s The Difference Between Hacking The Book Depository And Channel BT?

What’s The Difference Between Hacking The Book Depository And Channel BT?

A post this morning describing how you can tweak the Book Depository to get cheaper prices resulted in several commenters suggesting it was unethical to even discuss how to do that, let alone actually doing that. I don’t see the same kinds of reactions when Lifehacker discusses using BitTorrent to download TV shows or setting up proxies to view Hulu content — but if you’re being logical and rational, there’s actually no real difference between the two topics.

In the original post, I noted that the technique (which involves changing cookies so that you appear to be in the UK) was controversial, and that I personally wouldn’t use it. That didn’t stop several commenters suggesting it was “bad form”, “crappy” and “pathetic” to even highlight its existence. I didn’t find the arguments made for that point of view (both here and on other sites) very convincing. Some of that is do with the arguments raised in this specific case, and some of it derives from what I’ve always thought was a demonstrably selective morality amongst a large proportion of the population when it comes to these kinds of hacks.

Let’s break down the argument. Self-evidently, if Book Depository has assumed you’re based in the UK and calculates its costs accordingly, it will end up out of pocket once those goods ship to Australia instead, and that could damage its business. Here’s what commenters Bob and Steve had to say:

It _is_ unethical to use this technique. You’re intentionally deceiving a well-meaning company to their financial detriment . . .

Book Depository have made a positive contribution to the book distribution business and you are offering advice to people to mess the company about.

There’s at least two problems with this specific line of argument:

Is the Book Depository really a good thing? Whether you think Book Depository has made “a positive contribution” depends on your point of view. If you’re a local bookseller, you’re unlikely to be a fan. From a consumer point of view, you also don’t have to look too far to find accounts of people experiencing poor service from the company.

The “free shipping” issue. As defenders of the technique point out, Book Depository’s marketing technique is to promote “free shipping”, but in fact it is doing something different and more subtle: building shipping prices into its titles, but not making that obvious. A regular ecommerce site would determine your location by asking for your address, and would set the prices at that stage. By using IP information and cookies to deduce and set your location, Book Depository can claim “free shipping” while still varying its prices to cover the associated costs.

That’s a clever marketing technique, but it creates an issue: once a price has been set, the Book Depository process can’t say “Sorry, we need to charge you more to cover shipping” once you enter your address without looking like an outright liar. If it promoted “the cheapest books”, it could calculate postage at the end of the transaction based on shipping address, and still probably offer you a good deal. But doing that would mean losing what has been its main selling point, so its best hope is that no-one will find a way to work around the issue. But that, as we can see, hasn’t happened.

Given that, I don’t know that the defence stands up in this case. But regardless, the essence of the argument as a general proposition goes like this: You’re knowingly using a deliberate trick to undermine an existing business model, and that’s wrong. There’s also a subtext: I like this business, and I don’t want you destroying it.

Now let’s consider what happens when you download a TV show via Channel BT, or work around geoblocking to access Hulu or iPlayer. That’s knowingly using a deliberate trick (downloading a non-legal copy or using a proxy) to undermine an existing business model (TV, whether ad or subscription supported). In other words, it’s the exact same behaviour, but I suspect you would have to look a long distance to find any consumers who would argue that was wrong with the same fervency as we’ve seen here.

In part, I suspect it’s a failure of imagination. It’s easy to see how having to pay more postage for each book will get expensive. It’s less obvious how downloading a show rather than watching it locally results in a TV station not attracting as much advertising revenue. But in both cases, the revenue that the company can earn from a given business activity is being reduced.

The second part of the proposition is somewhat different, since we clearly generally agree TV networks are untrustworthy and don’t seem concerned about earning our loyalty. That suggests they’re running their business badly.

However, the legitimate response to a badly-run business is to find an alternative legitimate source, not to find an illegal source for the same goods on the grounds that we don’t like the current one. Perhaps if we really enjoy a show, we might say we plan to buy the DVD when it comes out and will download in the meantime (though the DVD in most cases wouldn’t exist if there hadn’t been a loyal TV audience in the first place, so it’s perhaps not quite as simple as that). Regardless, arguing for the selective destruction of businesses based on whether you like them doesn’t seem like a very defensible ethical stance.

Note that I’m not suggesting any of these individual commenters themselves are hypocrites who are pro-BitTorrent but anti-bargain-hunting; for all I know, they might entirely shun downloading TV for exactly the same reasons as me. But I know that anything we publish explaining how to more easily access TV content from overseas ends up being massively popular. It’s very evident that lots of people want to do it, and no-one seems at all concerned in the slightest about the fact that doing so will impact on the businesses producing and/or broadcasting that content. Ethics change over time, and in this case there’s a clear emerging (but not universal) consensus. Still, I can’t see that the issues involved are any different with the Book Depository tweak. If you’re happy to circumvent regional restrictions on a stream, why wouldn’t you be happy to minimise the price you pay for books?

If the Book Depository can work out a way to stop people using this hack, you certainly won’t see me claiming that as unfair. (It could stop it right now by being more transparent, but that seems unlikely.) In the meantime, Lifehacker isn’t going to restrict itself to discussing hacks that are guaranteed not to offend any conceivable sense of ethics. If that happened, we’d never discuss BitTorrent or Hackintosh or a bunch of other issues and ideas (or run features like Evil Week).

OK, I’ve had my say. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome in the comments.


  • I did not comment on either the book depository article or any of the channel BT articles, That does not mean that we are not against it. I feel when talking to people about why they should not turn to torrents to watch TV or download music it generally falls on deaf ears, people know they are ripping people off, they just don’t care.

  • From the pragmatic point of view:

    Book Depository’s pricing model and “free shipping” is based on an incorrect assumption (IP addresses determine the customer location and built in shipping cost). It doesn’t matter if it’s unethical, some portion of their customer base *will* exploit this. It’s just a question whether or not it’s enough for them to renege on their assumptions and “free shipping”. Alternatively they could detect and cancel exploitive orders.

    I’m not sure why you would bring illegal copyright infringement into the argument, given that there’s nothing illegal involved in the proxy arrangement and you’re paying for your content.

    • Proxies aren’t illegal as such, but when used for streaming media they do alter the assumptions involved in terms of the advertisers buying on the streaming service (and of the local providers who buy rights to show). The BD hack does something rather similar.

      • True, but again that’s based on a poor assumption (IP == geography) of the provider and not really any immediate concern to the consumer.

        Thinking about your likening to bittorrent some more… I think it’s actually more like exploiting regional pricing on digital download services like Steam and iTunes – either through proxy mechanisms or users simply gifting purchases to other regions. The former is much more rigorously tested through credit card billing addresses (you can change the store region but purchases will be refused unless it matches your billing address). Of course Book Depository does have additional real costs based on your region, despite their free shipping claim, while digital download services do not.

        Perhaps Book Depository should overtly partition their users into different regional storefronts, then enforce their built-in shipping charges based on billing address. Although that sounds like admitting their shipping is not free =)

      • Have got confirmation from Hulu itself that they’re looking at bringing Hulu to other countries like Australia-they can’t say if Australia is being considered:

        We are actively exploring opportunities to launch our service in multiple countries around the globe and due to the confidential nature of those discussions I am afraid we can’t comment on individual markets.

        This came from Hulu’s Simon Gallagher who is their director of international business development.

  • Hulu could come to Australia eventually and not require the use of proxies-Simon Gallagher who’s their director of international development told me:
    “Thanks for your email and your interest in Hulu.
    We are actively exploring opportunities to launch our service in multiple countries around the globe and due to the confidential nature of those discussions I am afraid we can’t comment on individual markets.”

  • Two things..

    First is with the tv business model. I do not have a ratings device in my house, therefore whether I watch programs or ads makes no difference to their business model. If the program is not released here at all, why should I be restricted by local distributors’ actions (let alone their profit-motives). It actually serves both the program maker and the overseas distributor better if I watch it there (where their advertising costs and royalties are higher), regardless of local distribution (unless it is actually local content, but that is another thing).

    Second is more general. In a digital world I get to determine whose products and business models I support and who I deny lazy localised distribution profiteering to (I am looking at you dick / itunes). This is an awesome and unprecedented power for consumers. But they have a responsibility to use it wisely and carefully, lest they harm the content / product providers.

    I’d say people reacted unfavourably because they actually support the book depository business model.

    • @Miles — so are you saying you only hack into Hulu or use Channel BT for stuff you are sure will never get shown in Australia? And that if you got asked to be a ratings household, you’d say no?

      I absolutely agree people are selectively choosing business models they like — I just don’t think they think through the consequences, or don’t care if they have done that.

      • “so are you saying you only hack into Hulu or use Channel BT for stuff you are sure will never get shown in Australia?”

        To a point (i have only ever actually hacked bbc iplayer). In principal, I would only go loking for stuff I am reasonably sure will not get shown here in a reasonable timeframe, on a reasonable medium (i refuse to give one bloody red cent to fox, for instance). But as I said, hacking these content providers does actually provide a profit model for them (in a way that bit-torrent does not).

        “And that if you got asked to be a ratings household, you’d say no?”

        I would absolutely love to have even some small measure of influence over all the crap on tv.. no more $%*%!-ing cop shows ok!

        Agreed about thinking through the consequences! People don’t think enough.

        • If I was a content provider, I suspect I’d rather get money from Fox than try and persuade an advertiser that someone watching from a country where my product wasn’t on sale was worth their while. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  • As someone who understands the technical side of this, I can’t see any issue with your first post.

    By setting your region in a cookie the developers at Book Depo have effectively turned pricing into an honesty policy to allow them to lie about the price of shipping.

    In making the client report the location they’re basically just asking you “do you want free shipping?”. How are you supposed to respond?

    They shouldn’t have given you the option, like just about all other online stores. They’ve chosen to for advertising reasons, so I think you’re entitled to respond “yes”!

    You’re right – this certainly seems less of a legal and ethical gray area that BT or proxying media.

  • >What’s The Difference Between Hacking The Book Depository And Channel BT?

    Apart from a badly formed question? (Think about the semantics and syntax for just a few seconds)(structural ambiguity)

    I also believe that promotion of piracy is crappy and unethical. So, my point still stands. I really can’t be bothered arguing anymore about this as it will just go in circles. You know what you are doing is wrong (rationalise away). Enough said.

    • Well I believe eating meat is crappy and unethical.

      Thus you are a horrible person and should have been shot at birth.. Ahh, if only everyone could be as self righteous and pompous as you. Hell, we could have an ignoramus in every family 🙂

      Just because you “believe” it’s wrong, does not in fact make it wrong. Until such a time as the various countries legislate and make it so, it’s not.

      The ethics of the question are addressed in my post at the bottom. Feel free to read it, or stick your head back into the sand, either was is fine by me.

      By the way, eating meat is great. It’s delicious tasty murder; for you me and everybody!

  • Generally i’m pretty quick to nail Angus for doing the wrong thing for the simple reason I found a while back that he had been a little sloppy with his Journalism.

    In this case I don’t think what he is doing is wrong. He makes a very valid point, they are building the shipping costs into the cost of the book, and thus lying about their selling point of “Free Shipping”. Whether what you are doing by bypassing this system is ethical is another matter, but discussing it is certainly not immoral nor bad journalism.

    Angus, I think in assessing the selective ethics of your readers, you have overlooked that most people view digital content piracy as a victimless crime because all they are pinching is 1s and 0s. In this case there is a tangible, solid item being gained by deception, and to a lot of people that is a unethical, despite their (hypocritical) point of view with digital content.

    Ultimately, Angus has exposed a con/cheat that the book company is using to trick buyers into using their service. What he has done is not immoral. Users reading this article and choosing to cheat the system is a different matter, but in that case the morality question is on their shoulders and not his. He openly acknowledges that it might not be the right thing to do.

    I should also note, the standard of Angus’ journalism has been a lot higher as of late. Just in case anyone thinks I am hating on him again :\

    Well done Angus.

  • Didn’t read this response completely, but I did the original post.

    This website is called lifehacker. I don’t see how what you posted goes against the trend of your website. It is not bad form or unethical – this website shows all it’s users techniques and shortcuts for everyday things from online webspaces to the real world.

    I can think of countless posts off the top of my head where lifehacker showed users how to get invites or access to certain products in unconventional ways with the comments praising the author of the post. The only difference is this a company that sells a physical product rather than an online service.

    Keep up the good work, lifehacker.

    • I can’t agree more – I read lifehacker for info. I’m an adult and will make my own moral choices. Personally I wont use the hack (the times that I’ve ordered from Book Depot in the past, I’ve been happy with the prices I paid so I don’t feel the need), but I certainly appreciate LH posting it.

  • When some one creates some IP whether it be book, TV show, Movie etc, they own it and they get to choose how it is sold. They can choose to sell it direct, via a TV channel, online, via a shop or whatever. As a purchaser your only ethical and legal choices are a) buy it from them via one of their authorised channels or b) withhold your cash and send them the message that their content is not up to par, their pricing is too high or their delivery mechanism doesn’t suit you.
    Its not complicated…

  • When using bit torrent to download TV you are negatively affecting companies that have made a policy of inconveniencing the Australian public by not releasing content here in a timely way in any legal form.

    When using this trick to lower book prices you are negatively affecting a company that has made a policy for your convenience, to give a simple price per book, and using that policy against them.

    Angus, if you couldn’t see and understand the difference there then I don’t think the failure of imagination is on the commenters side.

    • @David — it still comes back to the issue that choosing whether to treat companies badly based on whether you approve of them (which is what your “convenience” argument boils down to) is a pretty shaky ethical stance.

      • @David: This seems like the ‘but Johnny hit me first’ argument. You could punch him back, but just like punching anyone it isn’t a good action. Regardless of previous deeds what’s good is good and what’s bad is bad.

  • Angus, I found your line of argument under “Is the Book Depository really a good thing?” somewhat disingenuous and irrelevant. So if it’s “not a good thing”, then it’s ok to point to possibly unethical means to discredit it? So among their sins is the fact they offer an online alternative to high street retailers? Forgive me, but I think Amazon and others may have had a head start in that regard. I like Book Depository because they are nearly always the cheapest source (according to the excellent resource booko.com.au). And I have never had an issue with their service.

    • @Phil — the point about online was specifically about the argument raised that the Book Depository was good for the industry — I don’t think that’s a black and white statement that should go unchallenged. Actually in this area, there’s very little black and white overall.

    • Unfortunately I do have to agree here Angus. The comparison drawn, although I’m sure not intentionally, makes it sound like you are justifying your position by making out that the company is “bad” in some way.

      Although I agree with your article, that was perhaps not the best way to go about your defense..

  • Firstly, Commenters, you do realise the site is called LifeHacker…. Moving on.

    Book depository does have free shipping, just like a coffee shop gives you free Milk with your coffee. It’s counted as an overhead and you are charged accordingly to your unit price. They haven’t done anything wrong.

    Angus has done no wrong by publishing the post. It’s a hack, a way of saving some money. I think the comparison to Channel BT is a bit misguided and thats what riled people onto their justifying high horses.

    Can’t we all accept we live life by our own rules and choose to follow/do what we want.

  • can someone please advise me of how to access hulu from australia?

    I have tried numerous ways and just cant get it to work. it used to work for me with an extension using firefox.

    Any direction would be of great assistance

  • On one hand, I understand that using BitTorrent to access material that was published freely, or with an associated charge that really only reflects the cost of delivery, is illegal.

    I also see that the reality of broadcast media in particular, and most movies, is that they don’t pay the bills with retail sales and they certainly don’t pay the bills with the direct payments of the majority of BT users. I also understand that accessing that material via BT, had you not been prepared to access that material via a paid medium – doesn’t actually take any money out of the pocket of the vendor. I’m also considering that most of the visual media providers who I might pirate from pretty much deserve their title as the evil empire. Essentially all of my experience with the visual media industry has shown me that the industry as a whole is unethical in their treatment of artists, unethical in their observance of their tax obligations, and outright villainous in their willingness to market to children and the unaware using unscrupulous means.

    When you talk about physical goods – there is a real cost to giving me my books. I mean I’d love it if they were cheaper – but Book Depository is already doing a fantastic job of getting me books at reasonable prices – after spending the majority of my life paying much, much higher fees for the exact same product. The book publishing issue is far less ethically questionable in their treatment of artists and their marketing methods and far less prevalent in their propensity to screw the tax system.

    The ethics of compromising a weakness in the e-commerce solution of an essentially ethical party who has introduced a business model that massively benefits me, in a way that will physically cost them money seems to be a very different thing from exploiting a technology mechanism to access media in a way that incurs no cost or genuine loss for a party who is largely unethical and has a history of actively trying to screw me.

    I would assume that in the next few days that Book Depository will start refusing to deliver to international buyers who were priced as UK residents and I hope they continue to offer their phenomenal service.

  • Sorry I agree with this article, if a company advertises something as free, then free it should be. If they promise free delivery then that is what the customer should get, otherwise they should say sometyhing like “CHeap books with discounted shipping” or “shipping included in price” otherwise I see no moral problems here with manipulating a cookie, if the company did as it advertises then their would be no issue to begin with.

    Many people use proxies for whatever reasons they have, I myself do it for privacy reasons quite often and have noticed a change in content on sites I am registered with, when I forget to disable the proxy, depending on where the proxies IP is determined to be coming from, leaving me to discover someone from Germany, UK or the U.S is getting better deals and bonus content on subscribed sites where I pay the same amount, sometimes more, to subscribe for the same service.

    If companies want to use IP to determine the location of browsers then they accept all that comes with it, and if said company doesn’t realise that it is open to exploitation then as someone else said about customers, they’re pretty naive. I mean if your business is internet based, you need to know how the internet works right?

    But again the only moral problem I see here is a company lying to it’s customers about their service, that to me is what people should be upset about.

  • “Free” things are very rarely free – it’s very common to have the extra cost factored into a price, and advertised as “free”. Just look at all the “interest free loans” for items that are magically cheaper if you pay up front (bargain!) It obviously does cost more to ship a book from the UK to Australia, than it does to ship it locally. I have no problem with book depository factoring in shipping, as it still gives me a clear indication of the total cost up-front – and is still cheaper than buying locally, most of the time.

    Comparing book sales to TV shows is also apples and oranges. If books were like TV episodes, then buying a book in Australia would give me a blurry photocopy with every third page ripped out and replaced with a glossy ad – that’s if I could even get it locally!

  • I’m late to the party here and realise that no one will probably see this but I don’t see how this is any different to phoning a mate in London and having them order it for you.

    Oh wait, I suppose ordering myself via a proxy instead of phoning my mate to order it is doing Telstra out of a phonecall to the UK…

    Hang on, if was I to call someone to order for me in the UK I guess I’d probably do it for free over Skype instead of paying Telstra $1m a minute from my landline… is there no end to my immorality? I’m killing business left right and centre.


  • It has nothing to do with the actual shipping price. They attack local markets and do not mind making five cents on a sale if they are stealing that sale away from one of the local companies…Be it Amazon in the USA or an Aussie company. The thing is, as soon as they can jack the price up on you they will.

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