Amazon's Plagiarism Problem

Amazon's erotica section isn't just rife with tales of lust, incest, violence, and straight-up kink. It's also a hotbed of masked merchants profiting from copyright infringement. And even with anti-piracy legislation looming, Amazon doesn't appear too eager to stop the forbidden author-on-author action.

After publishing 20 non-fiction books with mainstream publishers, Sharazade (her pen name) decided to try her hand at erotica, and over the past year has published two sex- and fantasy-themed ebooks, both of which are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords (Warning: Linked pages may contain explicit content.) Her stories often involve travel—a passion of hers—and are set in exotic locales. Recently she began publishing other authors through 1001 Nights Press, a small house she founded, and last month she learned that Amazon was letting indie publishers and self-published authors into its Kindle Select program.

Sharazade, who requested anonymity because she also works as a freelance writer, editor, and teacher and doesn't want clients or students to know about her erotica exploits, recognized several benefits to working with Amazon. She could offer a title free for up to five days, and that's great publicity since her book would inevitably shoot up in the rankings. If any Kindle Select members borrowed her book—they are entitled to one title per month—she would receive a proportional sliver of the $500,000 Amazon set aside in December to pay publishers and authors. Then, once her book wasn't free anymore, it would be tied to things like "Customers who bought X also bought Y," plus readers might post glowing reviews and buy backlist books.

She decided to test drive the service with Erotic Stories of Domination and Submission: Taking Jennifer, a book by one of her authors, then watched it climb the rankings in "gratifying leaps." But Sharazade was dismayed that a number of books, a few with nonsensical titles, were beating hers, even though they were hamstrung by twisted grammar and perverse punctuation. Some sported covers comprised of low-resolution images with no lettering. One author managed to misspell her own name. "Even in porn, customers come down on books that are totally incompetent," Sharazade says, "but this wasn't happening with these."

After checking the author page for Maria Cruz, who that day had the top-selling erotica book in Amazon's U.K. Kindle store, she counted 40 erotica ebook titles, including Sister Pretty Little Mouth, My Step Mom and MeWicked Desires Steamy Stories and Domenating [sic] Her, plus one called Dracula's Amazing Adventure. Most erotica authors stay within the genre, so Sharazade was surprised Cruz had ventured into horror. Amazon lets customers click inside a book for a sample of text and Sharazade was impressed with how literate it was. She extracted a sentence fragment, googled it, and found that Cruz had copy and pasted the text from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Curious, Sharazade keyed in phrases from other Cruz ebooks and discovered that every book she checked was stolen.

Here's Maria Cruz on Amazon...

Compare with the earlier story, published on Literotica...

It turns out Cruz isn't the only self-published plagiarist. Amazon is rife with fake authors selling erotica ripped word-for-word from stories posted on Literotica, a popular and free erotic fiction site that according to Quantcast attracts more than 4.5 million users a month, as well as from other free online story troves. As recently as early January, Robin Scott had 31 books in the Kindle store, and a down-and-dirty textual analysis revealed that each one was plagiarized. Rachel M. Haven, a purveyor of incest, group sex, and cheating bride stories, was selling 11 pilfered tales from a variety of story sites. Eve Welliver had eight titles in the Kindle store copied from Literotica and elsewhere, and she had even thought to plagiarize some five-star reviews. Luke Ethan's author page listed four works with titles like My Step Mom Loves Me and OMG My Step-Brother in Bisexual, and it doesn't appear he wrote any of them. Maria Cruz had 19 ebooks and two paperbacks, all of which were created by other authors and republished without their consent, while her typo-addled alter ego Mariz Cruz was hawking Wicked Desire: Steamy bondage picture volume 1.

Writers I contacted through Literotica, who do not profit from the stories they post, expressed different reactions to being plagiarized, ranging from abject anger to flattery that someone thought their work worth stealing to fear I might reveal their real identity. A highly prolific scribe with the pen name Boston Fiction Writer, whose story, "Boston Halloween Massacre" had been transposed into an ebook titled Massacre on Halloween and sold under Robin Scott's name, threatened to hurt the person who stole her work, "even more than they hurt me, so that they'd think twice about stealing another story from me. I dare say, she'd have no more fingers left to steal anyone's stories, ever again." David Springer, a security guard whose "nom de naughty" is Oediplex, recently learned that his story, "I Remember Mother" was repackaged for the Kindle as My Step Mom Loves Me by Luke Ethan, and wondered how well the book was selling.

"I never did expect to get wealthy from writing," he says, "though I wish I had a penny for every orgasm my stories have produced."

Luke Ethan's story on Amazon...

And now here's the original, by Oediplex, on Literotica...

David Weaver, a 52-year-old math teacher whose story "Galactic Slave" was being sold for Kindle as Slave of the Galaxies, also by Robin Scott, doesn't have the resources to engage in a spat over copyright. "What makes this kind of theft so insidious is how easy it is to get away with and avoid getting caught," he says.

Naturally erotica isn't the only category ebook pirates have set their sights on. Manuel Ortiz Braschi has published thousands of ebooks on Amazon, often claiming as his own works in the public domain, including Alice in Wonderland. Amazon has pulled most of them, but Braschi continues to peddle an advice book for senior citizens and a plagiarized cookbook Amazon previously removed when it was sold under a different author's name. Mike Essex, a search specialist at U.K. digital marketing agency Koozai, identified several how-to books on procuring health insurance that were plagiarized, sometimes sold under three or more different author's names with slightly different titles but identical content (like this one). Fan fiction abounds with plagiarized titles, as does fantasy. Last year Canadian novelist S.K.S. Perry learned that an imposter was selling his novel Darkside for $2.99 as a Kindle ebook without his knowledge. He wrote on his blog: "All I can assume is that someone convinced Amazon that they were S.K.S. Perry, and submitted my book for sale." The same happened to Steve Karmazenuk, whose fantasy novel, The Unearthing, was co-opted by another Amazon seller.

Amazon's policy is to remove offending content when it receives complaints of plagiarism. Erotica author Elizabeth Summers had at least 65 titles expunged when plagiarism allegations surfaced. Recently Robin Scott's books also disappeared from Amazon when writers complained. (Scott, which is almost assuredly not her—his?—real name, did not respond to requests for an interview over Twitter.) But this reactive approach isn't entirely effective. After users in a Kindle forum griped about Maria Cruz, her entire cache of ebooks—all 51 of them—were deleted, but in the days that followed she posted a whole new set of material, mostly collections of porn pictures although there were a few traditional text-based works, too. And it usually takes Amazon time to act. "Galactic Slave" writer David Weaver told me he contacted Amazon weeks ago to request the stolen work be removed from the site and all proceeds forwarded to him, but Amazon has not yet complied.

To be fair, Amazon isn't the only ebook store grappling with plagiarism. In addition to her collection of Kindle ebooks, Eve Welliver offers five plagiarized works through Apple's iBookstore. "Supposedly Apple hand-checks all the erotica, which is why it takes forever for your books to show up there, but somehow she got through," Sharazade says.

This penchant for plagiarism shouldn't surprise us. Self-publishing has become the latest vehicle for spammers and content farms, with the sheer volume of self-published books making it difficult, if not impossible, for e-stores like Amazon to vet works before they go on sale. In 2006, 51,000 self-published titles were released; last year there were 133,036 self-published books, and that number is destined to climb. Writing a book is hard. All those torturous hours an author has to spend creating, crafting, culling until nonsensical words are transformed into engaging prose. It's a whole lot easier to copy and paste someone else's work, slap your name on top, and wait for the money to roll in. This creates a strong economic incentive, with fake authors—Sharazade thinks it's possible they are organized gangs based in Asia—earning 70% royalty rates on every sale, earning far more than a spammer could with click fraud. The new self-publishing platforms are easy to use and make it possible to publish a title in as little as 24 hours. There's no vetting, editing, or oversight, and if your work is taken down you can always throw up more titles or simply concoct a new pen name and start over. There's even a viral ebook generator that comes packed with 149,000 articles that makes it possible to create an ebook in minutes.

Legislation has been proposed that would give content holders more leverage in dealing with etailers: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). It would award copyright holders wide-ranging powers to run websites that host infringing material off the Internet without needing to acquire a court order. If it becomes law credit card companies could be forced to suspend financial transactions, search engines required to de-link ecommerce sites, and DNS providers made to hobble access. It's the kind of law, well-intentioned as it might be, that could have serious negative repercussions, opponents say. No wonder Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! have reportedly been considering a coordinated protest against it in the form of a blackout day.

There is, I believe, a simpler solution. Why not require an author to submit a valid credit card before she can self-publish her works on the Kindle? If an author, who could still publish under a pen name, were found to have violated someone else's copyright Amazon could charge that card $2,000 and ban her from selling again. Amazon could also run content through one of the many plagiarism detectors that are available—such as Turnitin or iThenticate—before an ebook is put on sale.

Perhaps, though, Amazon doesn't care if it sells plagiarized works; it benefits from the sale whether it holds back an author's royalties or not.

A company spokesperson responded to my requests for comment with the following statement:

We take violations of laws and proprietary rights very seriously. More information about eBooks rights can be found in Sections 5.7 and 5.8 of the Kindle Direct Publishing Terms and Conditions. If a copyright holder believes that their work has been copied in a way that constitutes copyright infringement, they can write to More information on Amazon's notice and procedure for making claims of copyright infringement can be found here.

[Ed note: typed out links were converted to hyperlinks]

Sharazade, for her part, says, "I have no problem competing against legitimate writers and publishers. That's all part of the deal. But I am irritated by competing with cheaters. That kills the fun of it."

And she adds: "It's lying, cheating, money, and sex. Might make a nice story?"

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.

[Source image provided by ShutterStock]

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  • I wrote an article to help authors protect this from happening to them: We put measures in place like right mouse click prevention etc on, but it's like playing whack-a-mole against these parasites. If it's not ebook creation, is ripping off copyright protected content to make copycat sites or apps. There's very little you can do to stop it unfortunately.

  • Jombert

    Turnitin or iThenticate cannot detect this kind of plagiarism as they search through the parsed database. They should better use the one that search the Google in real time, for example

  • Jean Oram

    I like the idea of having to input a credit card number because it is very fast and easy to publish on Amazon and equally fast for people to pirate and sell that book again. It is a nightmare trying to get your pirated book off Amazon. (Trust me on that one!) Well, a nightmare if you are an impatient sort like me!

    Thanks for sharing these stories.

  • Don Wiss

    A few things:
    (1) I think Amazon and the others should require real names, like Facebook does. All that plagiarize use pen names. If outed they don't want to tarnish their real name.
    (2) Plagiarism is also rampant in recipe books. Recipes are all over the web. It is easy to copy-and -paste 50, or 100, or some even have over 300 recipes. And they can produce a new book within days. Some books take all their recipes from a single large web site. Nutritional information and all gets copied in. And some authors jump around the web and take their recipes from many places.
    (3) The one area that I follow is the paleo diet. I have a spreadsheet of every Kindle-only book that has been published on this subject. Not all are recipe books. What my spreadsheet shows is that about 60% of every Kindle book ever published on this subject is plagiarized from the web.
    (4) In general Amazon and the others will only entertain an infringement complaint if the complaint comes from a content holder. And the content holder is expected to prove that they are the owner. They don't make it easy.

  • Guest

    Just to your information: there is no need at facebook to reveal your RL name, just chose a fake one. I never would reveal my eal identity on the net, as to much could be done with it, that is not in my interest.

  • Janet Stevens

    Were you right about Kelly Haven? Everyone else you mention has been canned by Amazon, but Kelly seems to have escaped the ax. I'm not sure why or how. If she actually stole 11 ebooks (stories) from Literotica, I would assume Amazon would have pulled her books already, after all, she brought bad press in addition to breaking their content guidelines. I can find nothing else even in the Amazon forum about Plagiarism re: Kelly Haven and this allegation. I hope you checked your facts on her involvement; I only question it because Amazon has not taken any steps against her.

  • Phoenix6944

    BreenaLyons wrote:  "Sorry, Phoenix, but names are not copyright protected."

    Yes, that's what I said, below; to wit:  "The important thing is, *neither* woman *stole* the other's name.  It
    isn't stealing--or copyright infringement--to use a fictional name as
    one's own fictional name."

  • BrennaLyons

    Sorry, Phoenix, but names are not copyright protected. You MAY be able to trademark certain names in certain businesses, but that isn't full protection. At the same time, I don't have respect for certain authors I can name that not only chose a pen name very close to mine but then further put out titles (also not copyright protected) that matched mine precisely. It does show a certain intent to confuse the readers, at that point. But...with 7 BILLION people in the world today and the many more that came before and published...and probably somewhere in the tens of millions of pen names (past and present), the chance of someone's name not sounding like someone else's...especially since some people choose names to pay homage to a great or as a play on words... Yeah, you're going to see a lot of similar names.

  • BrennaLyons

    Sorry for the doubles. It kept giving me errors and saying it didn't post again.

  • BrennaLyons

    Actually, since Amazon makes non-US authors jump through a bunch of hoops, they are more documented than US authors/publishers are already, even without a credit card on file...and mind you, Amazon has to have documentation of how to pay everyone, inside the US and outside. There should be some paper trail on the sellers, though whether or not someone that plagiarizes can be trusted not to provide fake/stolen documentation is a joke. Steal one thing...steal 100... What do thieves care about adding another broken law on the list?

    But there are still several problems with this idea. One is that a simple search will NOT always tell you who came first. I published a bunch of works in 2003 that left their original publishers in 2006 and were re-released by me in 2010-2011 (or with other publishers in 2007-2009). If someone plagiarized those works in the time range where they were OOP from me, a simple search might well find them first and, without further checking, brand ME as the infringing party. So no...I cannot agree with the process being so simplistic. There has to be more to it.

    Beyond that, I question WHO would get the $2000 proposed? Common sense says it would be the author who owns the copyright and has been infringed upon, but never fear...Amazon would try to take it or take a large part of it for their service. In addition, all proceeds from the infringing sales should be remitted to the owner of the copyright and removed from that payment source, and all customers that purchased the infringing copies should be notified that this seller is selling goods that are not his/hers and to avoid purchasing from him/her anywhere else...and that's before the account of the infringing party is banned forever from Amazon. I'd even say that the information should further be shared with the other sellers, large and small (including eBay and iOffer...where ebooks are often illegally sold), so the infringing person can be hit where it hurts everywhere at once. I'd also love to see eBay (for once) follow the steps above...including banning the sellers and informing the customers.

    Ironically, when I re-release my old works (and mind you, I have been a customer of AND an author on/publisher on Amazon for years and they already have these books linked to my author page), Amazon gives me grief because someone is selling used copies of the old print versions. As if used print copies have any bearing on my copyright. It takes more than a week to get a re-release of mine processed and selling, yet these infringers get processed faster and take longer to take down.

  • Tony Williams

    not require an author to submit a valid credit card before she can self-publish
    her works on the Kindle?”

    This would automatically disqualify thousands
    of bona fide aspiring writers in Africa, Asia and other parts of the developing
    world who, unlike you and other Westerners, don’t have access to credit cards.
    Still think that’s a good idea?

  • Martin

    People read this garbage?? I'm starting to think 90% of the human race shouldn't have children. Scary!

  • Sharon Wachsler

    A few years ago, I came across a company selling one of my articles on Amazon. They had my name as the author, but theirs as the copyright holder. It was an essay from a feminist newspaper. I later found out that the thieving company had stolen multiple other pieces from the same newspaper, and that they'd been trying to contact Amazon and gotten nowhere.

    I tried every which way to contact Amazon, and they never got back in touch. I did manage to fax some nameless entity there, after a lot of hard work, and demand that they take the article down and that they pay me for any sales the thief had made. I never did hear from them (nor receive a dime), but they did take the listing down.

    I publish several erotic short stories every year. Now I'm wondering if those are being sold by someone else under another name, with a typo-ridden title. The thought is stomach-turning.

    Given how little Amazon cared about the problem when I tried to bring it to their attention several years ago -- and that the feminist journal ran into the same problems with inaccessibility of Amazon's legal department as I did -- I think the outlook is grim for believing that Amazon will take this issue seriously and do right by its authors. After all, Amazaon exists only to make money, and they make sales no matter who sells the book, so what's their incentive?

  • Shar Azade

    I believe the most that must be displayed is an address (and yes, one could get a P.O. box--more expense, if one is publishing titles in the .99 - 2.99 range) and a phone #. From the privacy FAQs of the copyright office:

    Your point is a good one, that the effort isn't so much to document the ownership of people who post on Literotica but rather for Amazon to make pirating and selling there more difficult. How much of a risk one takes with privacy is a personal decision--but if Amazon loses a few skittish authors to protect the integrity of what it offers for sale, I would support that.

  • Mary Kirk

    Shar Azade wrote:  to register your copyright means that you make identifying personal data available to the public

    Actually, you can register a copyright under any name (and address; i.e., a P.O. box).  Once upon a time, romance publishers--Berkley, Bantam, Silhouette, Harlequin, etc.--included a non-negotiable clause in their boilerplate contracts to the effect that books would be copyrighted under the authors' pseudonyms--AND that the authors could not use those pseudonyms for any other publisher.  Obviously, the point was to prevent authors from taking readers with them if they went to a different publisher; the result was often mass confusion for readers trying to keep track of their favorite authors, who easily could end up writing under as many as four or five (or more) names.  I know of no major publishing house that still holds with such onerous contracts, but I do know quite a few NYT best-selling authors who, for privacy reasons, chose pseudonyms at the beginning of their careers and, hence, are known to the world at large only by those names.  The point being, it's quite possible for any author who might want to remain anonymous to the general public, as well as to family and friends, it is possible to do so.

    As far as writers who post their stories for free at Literotica (and other such sites) not wanting to pay to register their copyrights, I can appreciate that.  I wasn't suggesting that they should--technically, their copyright is protected under the law without formal registration.  For Amazon, et al., however, as a relatively easy, first step for vetting material submitted to them through KDP/PubIt!/etc., it still seems like a good idea to me.  If the self-publishing author expects to earn money--and don't we all!--registering a copyright seems like the professional thing to do.

    Good discussion!

  • Dakota Trace

    Wow, this would explain why my DH got an earful the other night on Pogo about how this woman said I was stealing my ideas from someone on Literotica. I thought it was funny because on my Lit page, it clearly states what my pen name is and even has my website listed. I got my start in writing there and still do have several stories that are listed. (I just haven't taken them down yet because the contract I have with the publisher didn't require I do it.) This is super scary. I hope that something comes of this article and Amazon becomes more diligent about what they are letting in.  


  • Shar Azade

    To respond first to the name issue, yes, Sharazade is a variant of Scheherezade, the Persian Princess of 1001 Nights. Author names, though, aren't copyrighted. If you are born Stephen King, you aren't obligated to change your name because someone else already publishes under that name. That's why Amazon lets authors set up author pages and link their works. If you check my author page at Amazon, you find only the books I wrote or contributed to, and not any works written by someone who also chose a variation of Scheherezade. Even book titles are not copyrighted, which not everybody knows--but book *contents* are.

    In response to Mary Kirk: Registering copyright and furnishing proof of it is certainly one way to go. The issue in the erotica genre is somewhat more complicated than for other genres, though. For one thing, the stories posted on the Literotica site (a mine of content for piraters) are posted for free--the authors don't get any compensation other than personal satisfaction. That makes many disinclined to pay $35 to register a copyright or to pursue legal action if it's infringed. Also, to register your copyright means that you make identifying personal data available to the public--and many erotica authors don't wish to do that, to protect jobs or sensitive family members.

    What Amazon does require (from US authors--I'm not sure what the regulations are for authors in other countries) is a bank account and social security number or federal tax ID. In my case, since I'm incorporated, any money earned goes to my corporation name the business bank account tied to my EIN. The piraters too must leave some sort of trail in that way: a bank account and tax number. Amazon also pays 60 days after the close of the month; I would presume if they find works that have violated their terms of use, they don't pay. The 60 days gives them some time to check--assuming that the problems are reported.

    Self-publishing already has a shaky rep in some circles. People worry that the writing isn't good, or that the books haven't been edited. That's the point of Amazon's "Look Inside" feature--you can read a sample before you buy. I'd certainly do that, even of an author whose name I already knew. Perhaps customers will also get used to taking a few sentences or excerpts (a string of seven words that doesn't include a proper name will usually suffice) and googling it to make sure the work only comes up credited to one author. I think customers have the right to know whom they're buying from.

  • Phoenix6944

    litchick wrote: i'd be more sympathetic if Ms. Sharazade hadn't ripped her pen name from a popular IR erotic romance author, Shara Azod.

    Well, since *both* women borrowed their names from Scheherazade (of ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS fame), I don't see that it matters who got there first. Each of the authors' pseudonyms is a play on words--just happens to be the same word, in this case a fictional character's name.  Not unlike the character from the musical **Bye Bye Birdie** called "Conrad Birdie," which was a word play on Conway Twitty, who began his career in rock 'n roll in the 1950s.  Pseudonyms, movie and book characters, stage names--they can come from anywhere, and lots of people create theirs from either real-life or fictional characters they admire or with whom they feel some affinity.

    The important thing is, *neither* woman *stole* the other's name.  It isn't stealing--or copyright infringement--to use a fictional name as one's own fictional name.

  • litchick

    See, I'm all outraged and stuff... HOWEVER, i'd be more sympathetic if Ms. Sharazade hadn't ripped her pen name from a popular IR erotic romance author, Shara Azod. Ms. Azod has been published since 2006 with over 50 titles to her credit. Seems that's the pot calling the kettle black...

  • Onyxwolf

    For what it's worth one of my stories was stolen by Robin Scott and within 12 hours of sending all the necessary information per the links above referenced in this article all Robin Scotts books were disabled for electronic purchase.  By the next day replied to my e-mail and said they were shutting down the ability to buy my story from this person and at my request they sent me the person who is using the name Robin Scott's name, address, e-mail address and the total amount they made selling my story so I can pursue my legal options against this person.

    As to the other 30 stories this person stole I did submit links to proving the works were stolen however they wouldn't take my submissions as I'm not the copyright owner of the other works.  I spent the better part of Tuesday matching Robin Scott's so called books to their proper authors and sending the authors notice to also file disputes with  It's very disheartening to realize that a person could be so underhanded as to profit off of stories posted for the free enjoyment of others at  I hope that with enough people complaining to they may take more action to stop the flagrant plagiarism.