ISBN Theft: A Crime Most Improbable

Can you steal a number?

Arguably, yes. A safe combination, a gift-card number… Those would, theoretically, get you access to something of value, and thus could be said to have worth of their own, in some senses.

But can a number have intrinsic value?

ISBNs can. $10 a pop, in the United States, in small quantities. More, possibly, in some other countries. (And, conversely, less or none in many others.)

As far as theft goes, it seems improbable, nearly pointless, at first glance. Why’d you want to steal an ISBN? Think about it for a few moments, and I suspect you’ll come up with a few reasons.

All of that ignores the big, obvious question – can you even steal an ISBN, in the first place?


You may or may not have ever really given them much thought, but ISBNs aren’t random. They’re issued in blocks, sequential assignments, in (generally) some multiple of ten, all very predictable and non-random. They’re a unique identifier of a format of an edition of a title, but convey a little more information than that, if you dig around a little bit.

Most of this is pretty boring academic stuff only really interesting to statisticians and math nerds, so if you’re really that interested, go read the Wikipedia article.

Suffice it to say, though, that with a little bit of effort, you can work out every ISBN that’s been issued as part of any given block, and check, thanks to various online databases, whether those numbers have ever been assigned to a title, i.e. whether they’ve actually been used.

Because ISBNs are strictly unique, you can’t “re-use” one. So, if you’re a nefarious person trying to put an ISBN on a book/e-book, on the cheap, without having that number traceable to you (cough, e-book pirates, cough), there are no two ways around it, you need a number that hasn’t already been assigned.

There are two ways you could do this. Picking a number from a block that hasn’t even been issued yet – they’re issued sequentially – is fairly low-risk, right up until that block is issued, at which point the rightful new owners are probably going to be kind of pissed.

Finding a number that was issued long ago but never used, on the other hand, is about as close to zero-risk as any sort of theft is likely to ever get.

Here’s a low-risk (in terms of the potential for exploitation – there’s just a single ISBN is in play, here) example of what I’m concerned about: In 2005, Lachesis Publishing, a/k/a LBF Books, was issued a block of ten ISBNs: 0-9773082-X-N, where X is 0-9 inclusive, and N is the check digit. (I picked this block at random, FWIW.) With a little bit of Google time, we can see that X values of 0 through 8 inclusive have been assigned to books. The tenth ISBN from that block – 0-9773082-(the_number_nine)-4 – seems not to have ever been assigned. Maybe it was assigned internally to a title that got cancelled. Maybe it just “slipped through the cracks”. I dunno. What I do know is that that’s a valid ISBN number that has never been on the market, and should work just fine at CreateSpace, iTunes, Smashwords, or wherever else one might want to publish something. Six years later, I think one can pretty safely assume that Lachesis isn’t going to use that ISBN. If someone needs an ISBN for something, there’s, as far as I can tell, absolutely zero technical restriction to their using that one, or to some unscrupulous third party “selling” them that one, assuming nobody else steals it first. (Assuming there’s a market of ethically-challenged people, which seems a safe bet, how much do you figure an unissued ISBN assigned to a big-name publisher, Penguin, say, might be worth?)

It’s obviously quite unethical and immoral, but it’s very technically possible, as far as I can tell.

I’m not sure anyone has ever actually stolen an ISBN… yet. I’m also unclear whether any publishers have actually checked to make sure that every title under one of their ISBNs is actually “theirs”. Slightly worryingly, I’m not sure there are actually any existing technical means to prevent it from happening. The whole ISBN system is based, it seems, on this wonderfully outdated assumption that people are basically decent and honest. This wasn’t a big problem “back in the day”, but the last decade or two, with the rise of print-on-demand publishing and the “e-book revolution”, would seem to have created an environment ripe for exploitation.

I suspect it’s only a matter of time…

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on January 26th, 2012| 5 Comments »

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5 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On 1/28/2012 at 10:06 am International ISBN Agency Said:

    We would strongly discourage anyone from attempting to try to steal ISBNs.

    To take an example from a completely different area – to reach your friend you call the number stored for them in your address book, mobile phone etc. If you call the number and connect with someone else entirely who is nothing to do with your friend but has stolen their number, what is the point – at the very least you would both be frustrated and annoyed wouldn’t you?

    Action can and will be taken against individuals or organisations who “pass off” numbers that look like ISBNs and/or have not been legitimately obtained. Using “ISBNs” that belong to another publisher or which have not yet been assigned to anyone is at best risky and damages the integrity of the ISBN system. Of course, publishers who have legitimately obtained the ISBNs concerned may also take action against anyone misappropriating their ISBNs.

    All ISBNs are 13 digit format now. 10 digit ISBNs (as given in your example) are invalid and should not be used. An ISBN is used to identify a particular publication in a particular edition and format by a specific publisher. ISBNs enable information about a particular publication to be recorded into databases providing details about books available. This enhances both discovery of particular titles (with title, author, publisher, subject classifications, jacket image, number of pages, author biography etc) and also provides information about how much they cost.

    To buy a particular book (whether in print or digital format) a customer (including retailers) needs to know where to purchase that book (publisher and/or distributor). Bear in mind that if you try to supply the organisations who manage books in print databases with information about your book and you are not the publisher who owns the ISBNs, your book will not be accepted anyway. Should you publish the book with not only another publisher’s ISBNs but also their name, there would be further grounds for action against you.

    It is certainly not safe to assume that a publisher, who has not used ISBNs for a few years, will not bring out a publication at a later date. This can often happen with small (hobby) publishers who may only publish a book every few years or so.

    Publishers who wish to identify their books by ISBN should contact the national ISBN agency in the country where they are based to register and to obtain ISBNs. Details of national agencies are available at:

  2. On 2/15/2012 at 10:35 pm Vidar Said:

    I know this question isn´t related to this article, but you have posted some VERY interesting articles about gang-tags a few years back. I was hoping you might be able to assist me.
    I´m a norwegian writer and I am currently writing a book set in Minneapolis where I lived for a few years when going to the UofM. Part of the story is about the main character getting involved with gangs in the Twin Cities. What I am looking for is information about local gangs in the Minneapolis area. I want things to be as authentic as possible. And since I gathered that you live or have experience from the Twin Cities area I was hoping you could help.
    My questions are as follows:
    1. What are the dominant gangs in the North and north west parts of Minneapolis
    2. What and how do they mark their turf. Specifically their graffiti work.
    Hope you can help and thank you for some great and informational work! :)

  3. On 4/2/2012 at 6:22 am John Said:

    The International ISBN organization is akin to a group of thugs who threaten to punch kids if they don’t hand over some pocket change. Well, not pocket change exactly, because a single ISBN in the USA costs $125. It’s a ridiculous amount for absolutely no value in today’s world.

    The computer industry long ago solved the problem of creating unique identifiers for everything from web connections to mobile devices to files. Thus, the example given in the posted reply by the ISBN rep is ridiculous. The international group that regulates MAC addresses (used to identify each computer, cell phone, network device and game device) has one-time charges of $600-2800 per organization, not per device, and the organization can figure out how it wants to both create and assign its own unique numbers. There’s no magic to it and apparently it works better than the ISBN system, given that the Internet has not come crashing down in recent memory.

    An EPUB file is a collection of other files, and at each level there can be a an SHA-2 hash calculation, resulting in the guarantee of uniqueness for a given instance of a given work. Better yet: it’s totally free. If the Library of Congress were to administer a simple database for registry and lookup of these hash numbers, the ISBN would have no reason to exist. If the LoC won’t do it, then let’s ask Google or Amazon. I’m sure that either would provide this free service to authors and publishers.

    With SHA-2, in fact, each sentence of each book, for each edition could have it’s own calculable unique identifier that would not require humans to be part of the process. How could would it be to ask for the second open paragraph of each known (unpublished and published) edition of Huckleberry Finn? For free?

    But, free doesn’t make hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the way that magical ISBN numbers do.

    Sigh. Here’s my lunch money. Will that do?

  4. On 4/16/2012 at 5:36 am Kate Said:

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  5. On 10/12/2013 at 12:53 pm Michele Said:

    What does one do if they ARE subject to ISBN theft?

    I recently found a number on lulu that carries our presses Company indicator. It has not been issued to us,but the publisher IS listed as us. So clearly, this individual has ‘stolen’ and ISBN and for that matter ‘stolen’ our companies identity.

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