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…