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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 copyright@amazon.com. 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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