CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Amazon and the problem with plagiarism

Publishing houses may worry about DRM, but there's a far more problematic issue plaguing the writers of ebooks.

Michelle Starr
Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
5 min read

Publishing houses may worry about DRM, but there's a far more problematic issue plaguing the writers of ebooks.

(Pirates of the Caribbean, Desert Operations image by A47, CC BY-SA 3.0)

We're not talking about people downloading TV shows without paying for them, or about the broke student who finds musicians to love via Limewire. This, in my mind at least, is much more heinous: the blatant plagiarism that dogs Amazon, where opportunistic intellectual property (IP) thieves upload the work of other authors in the hopes of making a quick buck.

It has been a persistent problem.

The resale of free public-domain books from Project Gutenberg was such a big problem that Amazon had to update its policies in 2011 to disallow a straight lift of public domain ebooks.

But while reselling the work of deceased authors is a bit skeevy, at least it usually gives credit where it's due, leaving the author's name where it should be.

But Amazon's self-publishing system allows anyone to upload and sell a book, and it seems to lack the checks and balances that weed out the brazen plagiarists who take someone else's work, slap a new title and name on the cover and sell it as their own.

Earlier this month, sci-fi authors CH Cherryh and John Scalzi issued Amazon with DMCA takedown notices for books of theirs that one Ibnul Jaif Farabi had uploaded, with titles slightly changed, under his own name. He had also done the same thing with works by deceased authors, such as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, who, of course, are slightly too deceased to notice.

Amazon has pulled the books from the store, as have Smashwords and Scribd (although titles by Farabi are still available on Smashwords, which has not yet responded to CNET Australia's request for comment) — but this is not the first time that something like this has happened on Amazon, as a quick Google search will rapidly uncover.

Author and owner of publishing house 1001 Nights, Sharazade, discovered early this year that plagiarists were ripping off works from free erotic-fiction website Literotica.

Users of marketing forum Warrior, who had been buying what they thought were original IPs to sell on Amazon, started to find last year that the books that they had thought they had been buying in good faith via private label rights were, in fact, plagiarised. You can read an account from one of those poor saps on FastCompany.

Also earlier this year, Romance Writers of America: Kiss of Death member Kay Manning was caught plagiarising the works of several of her peers, changing the text slightly and uploading the results across the web — not just to Amazon, but also iTunes, Sony, Kobo, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.

Then there was Peter Michelsen, Robin Scott and many others.

In fact, Amazon admitted that it has removed "thousands" of copyright violations, telling CNET Australia:

We have processes and systems to detect and remove books that violate copyright or don’t improve the customer experience. Over time, we’ve rejected or removed thousands of such offending titles, and we expect to keep improving our approach.

Amazon has also told PaidContent that it uses screening software to check for duplication.

I get it. There are a lot of opportunists out there who don't care who they tread on in order to get what they want, and Amazon is a big site. It would be very difficult for Amazon to employ people to check every manuscript that gets submitted, as Apple does, for example.

Its software does seem to be pretty good at picking up violations — eventually — but there is another problem: compensation for plagiarised copies of the book sold.

A number of burned authors have been told that it's not Amazon's problem — that the author needs to take it up with the plagiariser.

One problem I see with this is that Amazon has pocketed the money from those sales already; it has profited from copyright violation; but, under current US copyright laws, it is unclear what Amazon ought to do. To qualify under the current safe-harbour provision, Amazon must not have received financial benefit. But it doesn't say what Amazon is supposed to do with the money it has received.

I am impressed with what Smashwords tries to do in these circumstances, which is to compensate the author:

Today, for the first time ever, we confirmed a real honest-to-goodness case of plagiarism affecting a Smashwords author. That's right, every author's worst fear. Your book stolen and then resold with someone else's name. Only, in this instance, the so-called Smashwords author was the plagiariser. He stole another person's story that was available free on the web, put his name as the author, formatted it nicely to the style guide (nice touch!) and then even sold a few copies. Needless to say, a good samaritan caught him in the act and we've taken the book down and should be able to divert the ill-gotten profits to the real author.

My issue with all of this is that it always seems to be the "little guys" who get hurt the most; not the big-name authors, who have big-name publishing houses to throw a few law people around, but the independent authors who are trying to get their work out there.

It's heartening that Amazon is addressing this problem (slowly), but it really doesn't feel like enough for the people who can't afford legal counsel, who have been ripped off and then left to pick up the pieces themselves.

No system can be perfect; even a human pair of eyes is subject to error (no one can have read and memorised every book on the market). A lot of things seem stacked against the creators of the content we all love: legal costs, big corporations that don't really care a great deal and vermicious little thieves who want to profit from someone else's work.

But, at the end of the day, it's market leaders like Amazon that should be setting the example, looking after its sellers and making sure that those who drive its business are cared for and happy. There may be a lot of authors out there, but making them unhappy can only do a business such as Amazon more harm than good.

If you do see a copyright violation, please report it to the relevant seller using the links below.

Barnes & Noble
Google Books