JK ROWLING is set to lose millions of pounds of royalties because rogue translations of her books are appearing on the internet months before the official editions are printed.
Strict secrecy surrounding the latest Harry Potter book, meant that official translators did not get hold of the new volume until the English edition was published, meaning that millions of Potter fans must wait until next year to obtain official copies of the book in their first language.
Lawyers for Rowling and her publishers across the globe have been taking legal action to force websites offering the pirate translations to remove the offending documents, and they have warned those downloading the bootleg editions that they may contain viruses and offensive material.
The first chapters of the new book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, appeared on the web in a variety of languages including French, Spanish, German and Russian within 48 hours of the original hitting the bookstands on July 16. The English-language edition was a worldwide publishing sensation, selling almost seven million copies on the first day alone.
The strict secrecy which surrounded the publication of the Half-Blood Prince meant that even Potter's regular translators were banned from seeing the volume before it went on sale.
This has forced millions of young Potter fans who are not fluent in English to wait. The French and German editions will not be available until October 2005, the Russian version will not be in shops until December, and the Spanish version is not expected to be released before next spring.
A study carried out by Envisional - the Cambridge-based internet monitoring company - calculated that the top three pirated authors were, Stephen King, Rowling and Terry Pratchett. Some estimates have suggested that book piracy costs the publishing industry about 400m worldwide.
Chris Swannack, the technical director of Envisional, said: "It is a growing problem around the world and it has an impact on two kinds of books; firstly the very well-known international authors, and publishers of academic textbooks.
"The usual method of piracy is scanning a book into a computer page by page and then using character recognition software to 'read' in the text.
"As well as well-known authors like JK Rowling, piracy is a serious problem for publishers of university textbooks. Students are taking to downloading copied books from each other to save money. The online translation thing is yet another manifestation of the piracy phenomenon. It is becoming clear that it is costing the industry money."
Asked what the impact of a bootleg could be on sales, Swannack said: "In the case of software, for every 10 copies of a program one is illegal. It might not be far off that for books."
If pirates account for as many as one in 10 book sales, then it would cost Rowling and the publishers dear. The German Potter alone sells three million copies per edition at a cost of about 15 each, with an author typically receiving 10% of the cover price.
A loss of one sale in 10 would lose Rowling about 300,000 sales, or 450,000 in Germany alone. Losses in Russia, where Potter sells about a million an edition at about 6 a copy, would cost the author about 60,000.
The German internet edition is being produced by a group of up to 20,000 volunteer translators, who - in return for agreeing to help out - get access to what has already been translated. The producers of the internet translation ask that those logging on should have bought English copies of the book, and insist that they are not trying to harm sales of the German version.
A spokesman for Rowling's agents, the Christopher Little Literary Agency, said: "We are fully aware of a number of sites offering unlawful e-Books and files in Germany, Russia and elsewhere and we are taking appropriate action to protect our clients' legitimate rights. We are supported in this task by the local language publishers."
THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICES
HARRY Potter has been translated into 60 languages including Greenlandic, Welsh, Basque and Macedonian. Sales of the latest volume were worth about 20m on the first day alone.
After eight months at the top of Amazon's online best-seller list, JK Rowling was only last Friday toppled from the number one spot by food writer Simon Hopkinson.
As well as rip-off translations Rowling has had to battle with rival 'Potter' stories. In 2002, an unknown author in China published Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon, in which Gandalf of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was revealed as Harry's grandfather. Another headache was the emergence of the Tanya Grotter books by Russian author Dmitry Yemets, which starred a magical teenager with round glasses attending the Abracadabra school for young witches.