Now that Napster has the music industry reeling and music fans dealing in a digital swapping , what's next? It could be Bookster.

As electronic books really start to take off, the worries about piracy also begin to escalate, according to Dick Brass, Microsoft vice president of technology development.

Speaking at the Seybold publishing conference here, Brass characterised such piracy as "screwing with the golden goose."

The easiest way to "kill" a publisher is the "casual redistribution of popular content," Brass said.

"It's up to publishers and authors to determine whether they want to be distributed."

Piracy cheats authors and publishers of payment for their work, he says.

Microsoft has built a rules-based copy protection system into Microsoft Reader, its application for reading e-books on Windows systems and Pocket PC handhelds.

Authors and publishers can put limits on the use of their e-books. For example, you may be allowed access to an electronic title for a week or forever, or two readers may read the same copy of an e-book.

But any system is vulnerable to hackers, Brass pointed out. "Reader has very strong encryption," he said. The product has been available for three weeks and "so far, so good. We aimed high - I said I wanted one week [without being hacked] at least," he quipped.

The key to piracy prevention is to "establish an honest market first," Brass explained.

"The principal mistake the music industry made was they chose not to be first" in electronic music dissemination, he said. "I think our industry [book publishing] won't make the same mistake, and we will beat the pirates."

It's vital to educate the market on a massive international scale, Brass added. "To a large number of people, stealing bits is not seen as stealing," Brass said.

"That monstrous falsehood provides righteous justification for widespread thievery."

He explained he was stunned by the attitude of some work placement students at Microsoft. "They all used Napster and said it was just sharing," he said.