The New Face of Book Pirates: Plagiarists

by Jami Gold on July 30, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Pirate skulls with text: Pirates and Plagiarism

Surprisingly, many authors haven’t bothered worrying about book pirates. They figured a few copies going to readers who never would have paid for them anyway didn’t matter.

Heck, some authors even thought book pirates could be good for their career. Spread the word, appeal to more readers who might buy their book next time, yadda yadda. Um, think again.

When most of us think about book pirates, we think of a shady file-sharing pirate site. We wonder if the time we spend sending out DMCA takedown notices is worth it. We rationalize that no real readers go to those sites anyway, so the impact is small.

Those are old-school pirates. Amateurs.

The reality of book pirates is far scarier than we think. Welcome to a wild, lawless—and more importantly, consequence-free—mash-up of fan fiction, plagiarists, content scrapers, and Amazon scammers.

Quite frankly, I don’t want to think about it because it’s enough to make me consider giving up. But maybe if more of us are aware of the reality, we can help each other, keep an eye open for suspicious activity, and push for change.

The Perfect Storm Gathers Its Weapons

  • Fan Fiction and Plagiarism

I’ve written before about fan fiction (fanfic) and how some involved in the fandoms are ethically challenged. Unlike most fanfic writers, who create fanfic for love of the stories or characters, these people are interested only in the attention or in making a name for themselves.

Some of the latest big name fanfic authors are, in fact, plagiarists. They copy from published books, change just enough (character names and worldbuilding terms) to match a fandom, and post the story to a fanfic site (like fanfiction.net).

If they do any writing at all, they’re merely adding transitions between a section from plagiarized book A and a section from plagiarized book B. If they get enough acclaim—and don’t get caught—they might try publishing the stolen story for money, changing the character names yet again, in what’s known as pull-to-publish.

  • Content Scrapers and Amazon Scammers

The rise of Amazon self-publishing has led to scammers posting hundreds of books of dubious quality in an attempt to make money before Amazon catches up with them. Where do they get content for those hundreds of books? The internet.

Content scrapers used to be mostly known for copying blog content and pasting it to their own site for the purposes of advertising and spam revenue. Google Authorship has made that route less successful. So they instead take that scraped content and make money by posting the material as non-fiction books on Amazon.

Now, the scammers are also scraping fanfiction.net, FictionPress, literotica.com, etc. and taking those stories—some of which are already of questionable legality—and posting those as self-published novels on Amazon. Fanfic authors, who can’t even claim copyright infringement, are powerless to fight back.

Or the scammers take a couple of those old-school pirate ebook copies, mash them together, and post it on Amazon—with their fake name as the author. Why just steal content like those old-school pirates when you can plagiarize it and make money off it too?

Far-Fetched? Or Recent History?

We might want to pretend this couldn’t happen to us. Tell that to bestselling New Adult authors Jamie McGuire and Tammara Webber.

A month ago, Jordin Williams was outed as a plagiarist for her debut novel. Except there was no Jordin Williams. Or Liz Thomas. Or Emily Curran. Or Beth Klein. Or Emma Buch. Or K A Andrews.

All of these “authors” were in fact the same person: James Bishop, an Amazon scammer and content scraper. He created fake social media platforms on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads for each name. He stole pictures off the internet to use as their avatars. He scraped fanfic stories (calling it ghostwriting!) and posted them on Amazon for profit.

He was caught when one of the fanfic stories he copied and published on Amazon turned out to be plagiarized from the two bestselling authors. Their many readers recognized the writing and reported the book to Amazon, who removed it from their site.

In other words, he was caught only because he unknowingly copied a plagiarized fanfic instead of a normal fanfic, and the plagiarized content came from two bestselling books with many fans. Those of us who aren’t bestselling authors would have a harder time dealing with the issue but are no less likely to be victimized.

The New Book Pirates Do Not Help Authors in Any Way

Whether a published story is stolen for fanfic or for an Amazon scammer, the original author receives no benefit. Unlike the old-school pirates, who some argued “helped” authors connect with new readers, these stories are plagiarized.

The original author’s name is no longer attached to the story, so there will be no new readers discovering their other work. Readers who would never download from a pirate site can unknowingly purchase a plagiarized story from a site they trust, Amazon, and the original author has limited ability to recover any damages or lost income.

In addition, this “epidemic of plagiarism” is hitting the self-published arena harder because too many self-published books are plagiarized. The erotica section of Amazon is infected with them.

Hmm, New Adult… Erotica… These scammers are going after the popular trends. That doesn’t help readers, reviewers, or book bloggers from knowing who among self-published authors are legitimate either, and that hurts all self-published authors.

How Can We Combat These Pirates?

It’s not good for our long-term career goals to hope our stories are never liked well enough to appeal to a fanfic plagiarist or a content scraper. *smile* That means we have to find ways to improve the situation.

  • Register for copyright protection. In the U.S., all original writing is automatically covered by copyright, but we can’t sue for damages unless the work is registered.
  • Set up Google Alerts for phrases from our books. I’ve recommended using Google Alerts to protect our blogs from content scrapers, and we should do the same for our books.
  • Use Amazon’s Look Inside sample to do a Google search before purchasing. If you find a match on a free fiction site, the story might be plagiarized—either by a content scraper stealing the material from the fiction site, or by the poster at the fiction site stealing from the original author.
  • Let authors know when you suspect their work has been plagiarized. Many eyes working together is better than using just our own. If even a blurb on Amazon sounds too familiar, let the author know. Sites like Dear Author are experienced at confirming plagiarism and spreading the word to get Amazon to take action.
  • Report confirmed plagiarized work to Amazon. Encourage them to remove the work from sale. With enough pressure, they’ll issue refunds to purchasers. If they have to refund enough money, they’ll take the lead in preventing these spammers from posting stolen content.
  • Traditionally published authors can encourage their publishers to push Amazon. Maybe Amazon will make changes that will benefit all authors (like stronger prevention and content verification, establishing consequences, etc.), not just those who catch the scammers.
  • Accept that Amazon may have to make pay-out changes. Amazon might have to institute a longer payment hold to create a cushion in ensuring the scammers never receive the money.
  • Fanfic fandoms need to make it clear that plagiarism is unacceptable. Those active in fandoms can push fanfic sites to have a clear plagiarism policy and methods for reporting and removing violations and the violators.
  • Recognize that our online presence is now more important. In the above cases, the “authors” weren’t active in the writing community—blogging or social media—until right before their debut releases. This is now a red flag and book bloggers are (rightly) becoming suspicious of review and blog tours requests from authors who don’t have a long-term online presence.
  • Be real. Pen names are okay. What’s not okay is completely misrepresenting ourselves. Workshops for “How to Set Up an Author Persona,” complete with instructions on where to find fake avatar pictures, shouldn’t be encouraged. (I’m talking to you, FF&P chapter.)

That last tip, “be real,” along with our online presence, ensures that we won’t be suspected of being one of these content scrapers. Also, if people form a relationship with us, they’ll be more likely to report suspicious content that might be plagiarized from us.

As I mentioned earlier this year, “the internet is not just a faceless mass of words. The internet is people. People like you and me.” And together we can improve this situation.

(Tangent: Marcy Kennedy is running an encore of my guest post with tips for making a scene stronger over at her blog. Stop by and say hi. *smile*)

Had you heard about the Jordin Williams plagiarism case? Had you heard the full story, with fanfic and multiple persona details? Do you have other suggestions on how we can improve the situation? How else could Amazon or other retailers prevent these scammers or create consequences for them?

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41 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

kim cleary July 30, 2013 at 7:15 am

I had no idea, but read your post with interest. Your suggestions seem very sound to me :)

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 7:56 am

Hi Kim,

Yes, I’d been seeing the various aspects a bit at a time. Just about 2 weeks ago, a content scraper tried copying my whole site–thank goodness I have a tech guy/hosting company watching for things like that. :) Jay at techsurgeons.com blocked their attempt. Yay! *whew*

But it finally clicked for me yesterday how all of these pieces are now working together now when I was reading up on the aftermath of the Jordin Williams case. That “epidemic of plagiarism” article I linked to is excellent and gives other examples (meaning this wasn’t just a one-time thing). Worse, it won’t improve until Amazon finds better ways to deal with this. Thanks for the comment!

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Kitt Crescendo July 30, 2013 at 8:26 am

I am so glad that Renee Schuls-Jacobson told me I should look you up. Your tips and pointers are a huge help to me and my peace of mind. Sadly, I had heard about the whole Jordin Williams debacle. A few of my review blogger buddies were really hurt when they found out they’d been used. I actually had that person listed on my TBR list on Goodreads. Obviously, I removed it immediately. The whole thing is both sad and shameful. Thanks for sharing tools to help defend against these shady people.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 8:30 am

Hi Kitt,

Aww, thanks for the kind words! :)

Yes, I can’t remember which of the personas it was, but I’d unknowingly friended one of them in Goodreads. It’s odd and sad that something like this gives us a new, important reason to be active in social media. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee July 30, 2013 at 10:03 am

Honestly? My reaction to the entire fiasco was to sigh and yawn. The situation isn’t nearly as weird and new as a lot of folks seem to think.

Okay, a little background: I’ve been getting paid to write web content since 2005. If you count from how long I’ve been regularly active online, particularly in the writing communities, that dates to 2002.

Content scraping isn’t new.

See, “infoproducts” (think: tutorials sold online, some more useful than others) have had an online market for over decade. And from the get-go, those of us who would write web content and other infoproduct materials would have to be careful, because folks would still our work, repackage, and resell.

In fact, that market’s still alive, but it has its own vendors and markets and social circle, distinct from the e-publishing one—even though the infoproducts often are e-books. Why haven’t all the infoproduct vendors come flocking to Amazon?

Because the e-book pricing structure enforced by e-book vendors don’t make it cost-effective.

Infodproducts regularly go for a minimum of $25. Prices of $49, $99—sometimes several hundred dollars, but then you’re usually talking video, too—are not uncommon. Depends on what niche they’re targeting. (Don’t believe me? A major infoproduct market is ClickBank.)

And that “niche” thing is why infoproducts regularly cost so much: They meet a specific need, for a specific niche, which specialized information.

Or at least, that’s what the good ones do. The bad ones content scrape from…wherever. Some even take someone else’s product and just change the wrapper, then resell it as their own.

So those of us who’ve been dealing with this for years are like “Since when was this news?” rather than all “!” over it.

You do have some good tips, Jami—I do use Google alerts—but to be frank… If you let yourself fret over the issue, you’ll never publish anything. You’ll spend more time protecting yourself against pirates than you do writing, and that’s not doing yourself (your business or your health) any favors.

But if you keep writing and releasing, you expand your circle of exposure, and you increase the likelihood that somebody will spot the plagiarism, go “Hey, wait a minute…”, and let you know that you’ve been plagiarized.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 11:16 am

Hi Carradee,

I agree that content scraping isn’t new. However, putting scraped content onto Amazon is newer (the past few years), and scraping and selling fiction on Amazon is newer still–at least as far as the numbers we’re seeing now. (Probably because it wasn’t until the full development of KDP that real money was available to be had.)

So what has changed is simply the scope, scale, and accessibility of the problem. As you said, the infoproducts market has its own vendors, markets, and social circle. That is, those products aren’t exposed and being sold to mainstream consumers. That’s where Amazon’s huge customer base makes this a slightly different issue.

I’ve seen estimates that fifty percent of the titles in Amazon’s Erotica section are plagiarized. If true (and I know nothing about Erotica, so I have no idea :) ), that’s a huge influx into the mainstream buyers’ market. Again, the Amazon angle gives this a bigger scope, scale, and accessibility as far as the mainstream market, who barely pays attention to self-pub vs. trad pub, much less being aware of any plagiarism concerns.

That said, I completely agree that we don’t want to fret over this to the point of not writing. And your tip to focus on expanding our reader base so any plagiarism will be more likely to be spotted is excellent! :) Thanks for the comment and adding the great tip!

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Amanda July 30, 2013 at 12:51 pm

I actually saw part of that whole deal go down on Twitter – Ben LeRoy, publisher of Tyrus Books, blogged about it, Dear Author posted whole pages (complete with highlights) of the sections lifted…it was pretty interesting, especially the reaction from the NA bloggers who supported the book in the first place.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, the full details played out over several days. At first everyone just thought “plagiarist.” Then “Jordin Williams” claimed “she’d” been scammed by a ghostwriter. :O Since her bio said that she was an experienced ghostwriter and that her debut was her first book that she got to put her name on, that was mighty suspicious. Bloggers and Goodreads members worked together to put the bigger story of fanfic, multiple personas, and content scraping into context.

I say kudos to them all–and it just reiterates that anything we do on the internet will eventually be found out. There is no permanence to “getting away with something.” :) Thanks for the comment!

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Pauline Baird Jones July 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I had, just recently, heard of this. It is astounding to me that someone would take the time to do something like this– and yet it doesn’t. There are bottom feeders in all walks of life and in all industries. I had heard one story of a “fan” taking something free an author had posted and packaging it for sale on Amazon. Beyond skanky.

I know when I got the rights back to my back list, I had to send Amazon a rights reversion letter, but that doesn’t work for “original content.”
I honestly don’t know how to protect yourself, except never use free sites, or post your work for free on your own site. And yes, register your copyright. Keep backup copies of your work, so you can show a digital paper trail.

And yes, keep alert. I know it was reader who discovered that Nora Roberts work had been plagiarized by Janet Dailey. Readers are gold. :-)

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Hi Pauline,

Ugh! That’s horrible.

I know Amazon does occasionally check for duplicated material, as some authors have received emails questioning issues (a free chapter on their site flagged the full book, and a UK listing flagged the U.S. listing). But I don’t know how extensive those checks are.

The sad thing is that the advice used to be to post material (like for critiques) only on password-protected sites, but those passwords would prevent Amazon from checking for plagiarized content too. *sigh* Thanks for adding to the tips and for the words of wisdom about readers! :)

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Carradee July 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm

The password-protect thing is actually to be able to claim that “first rights” are still available. Otherwise, you’re technically trying to license reprint rights when you shop your story around, and a lot of folks don’t want that.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Hi Carradee,

Great point! I knew that tidbit at one point in time, but that had fallen out of my head. :)

I guess my overall recommendation would be to use those sites to post maybe a chapter or so to find compatible critique partners/beta readers (which could then move to email), but not to post our whole story for review/editing that way unless we trust everyone who has access. I haven’t used sites like that, however, so I’m not an expert by any means. :) Feel free to chime in if you have other thoughts. Thanks for the comment!

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Ainsley Wynter July 30, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Hi, Jami,

Great post and suggestions about how to handle a frustrating issue that doesn’t seem to have an easy fix. I watched the latest one unfold on twitter and then got lost in some of the trad vs self-pub comments that emerged. Sigh. I don’t blame reviewers for being wary (esp given the above stat of 50%–eek!). But, still. Self-pub is a legitimate way to publish original work. Anyway, I appreciate your advice about staying active on social media–yet another reason to have an established platform. :) Bless those readers who find and report instances of plagiarism.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Hi Ainsley,

Exactly. I don’t blame the reviewers, but… :)

The numbers of books produced by traditionally published authors is decreasing, and there’s no guarantee that those are the “best” books anymore. Reviewers who refuse all self-published books will lose out on the opportunity to discover stars-in-the-making, which would be a shame.

Perhaps writer organizations that give an extra sense of vetting will help their self-published members be accepted for reviewing in the future. For example, many of the instructors of WANA have met each other in person, so we know we’re real. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 30, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Omg O_O That’s really scary. Can’t believe some people are that shameless! D: I’m also one of those who hope that my book won’t become popular enough to be targeted by one of those plagiarists, but now that I’ve read your post, I think I really should take a look at official copyright registrations—it’s not enough to have a copyrights page in your self-published novel, right? :(

Also, wow, I didn’t think of the problem with having a fancy pen name. I wasn’t going to have one yet, because I still want to see my real name out there, lol, but thanks for pointing out this problem just in case I do want to use a pen name in the future.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, unfortunately, some people are cretins. As I mentioned in the post, in the U.S. all original work is automatically copyrighted–and we can use DMCA take-down notices, etc. However, I’ve heard from multiple lawyer-ly sources that court cases for damages want the paper trail of official registration with the copyright office.

Actually pen names are just fine. I’ve recommended them for people who need help being Google-able despite their common name or for those who want an extra layer of privacy. Pen names don’t require us to become a different person. We can still be “us” and be real, just with a “nickname.” :)

What raises a red flag for me are fake personas, when people pretend to be a completely different person–different personalities, likes, dislikes, hobbies, day jobs, family life, etc. At that point, there’s nothing real.

Personally, someone who treats their career as an “act” doesn’t inspire me to trust them. Who would I be trusting? The fake persona that doesn’t exist? Or the person behind the persona that I know nothing about? Um, I’ll say neither.

I hope that makes sense. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 31, 2013 at 8:16 am

Good point about some people having relatively more common names who might benefit from using pen names, when it comes to searching them through Google. I didn’t think of that. :)

And yes, it made sense. :)

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 10:43 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, back when a did a post about Google-ability, one of my commenters had a very common name and would never have shown up in a Google search without tweaking something. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kassandra Lamb July 30, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Valuable info. Thanks, Jami!

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Jami Gold July 30, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Hi Kassandra,

I’m happy to help. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Fiona Ingram July 30, 2013 at 11:47 pm

It’s actually not that easy to pick chunks of someone’s work and incorporate it into their own. One wonders – all the time and effort spent on cheating might as well have been spent on creating original material. I forget the name of this author but about 2 years ago he was outed as having written a ‘great’ novel, being hailed as the next Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming etc. Spy/thriller genre. Well, fans of Ludlum and Fleming (and many other writers) noticed whole sections of their beloved books appeared, basically word for word, in this ‘great’ new novel. The writer then confessed all, saying that agents had turned him down (boo hoo) and then finally he had found a traditional (lucky him) publisher, but he was so emotionally scarred that he thought he would fail if he wrote his own material. What a crock! In fact, his plagiarism was brilliant and people even asked why he hadn’t poured that energy and talent into writing something original. He had taken different sections of different books and woven them into a really good book – just that he hadn’t written any of it. Turns out he had won poetry awards for poems he had never written. It was another poet’s work. Anyway, his official career is over. However, he will probably, like this ‘Jordin,’ continue under another name. What also amazes me is that many writers who indulged in review sock-puppetry just carry on as per normal, head held high, pretending nothing is wrong. There seems to be no shame nowadays. They think the only ‘shame’ is being caught.

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 10:33 am

Hi Fiona,

I suppose the time it takes depends on how “good” of a story the plagiarist wants to make. :) For the ones who manage to make a coherent story, I absolutely agree with you. It takes storytelling skills and a knowledge of structure and characterization to create coherent story flows and character motivations, etc. They’d be much better off using those skills on original fiction.

Oh yes, I vaguely remember hearing about that case too. As you said, unfortunately, in their mind their shame is in getting caught, so they change merely their methods of cheating, not their cheating approach. Personally, I’ve seen Terrell Mims get caught twice for that very reason. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Char Mercer July 31, 2013 at 1:06 am

Hi Jami!
I just ‘discovered’ your site due to this post being shared on FaceBook.
I have to admit that I was shocked by the whole, Jordin Williams episode, when I first heard about it. I’d heard of pirating and plagiarizing many times before, but didn’t realize how big it had become. One thing I do think is good about the present writing world, is that authors are accessible to their readers/fans thanks to the Internet. A lot of them have developed an online relationship with their readers via FaceBook, Twitter and blogs and, when something like this happens, loyal followers are better able to notify authors immediately. Mailing a fan letter to an author was such a waste in the ‘good old days’. If you received a response at all, most of the time it was a form letter and so impersonal. These days, you can post something on an author’s FB page, or leave a comment on their blog, and they’ll comment back to you. You can even carry on whole conversations with someone you otherwise wouldn’t have any access to. I think this will help a lot in taking out these pirates, as well. There’s nothing like a loyal fan, especially one who feels like a personal friend, to watch your back for you.

Thanks for the info.

Great site, by the way!
Charli

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 10:39 am

Hi Char,

Yes, as I alluded to in the post, many of these elements have been around for a long time, but together, they’re forming a “perfect storm.”

I agree with you completely about the accessibility and engagement with others being a factor in our favor. As you said, that allows for easier notification of authors when fans discover issues as well as providing a personal touch that leads fans to care. In the “Jordin” case, I’ve heard the personas were somewhat active on Goodreads, in that they all belonged to the same group, promo’ing for each other. Not quite the same. :) Thanks for stopping by and for the comment!

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Kathryn Jankowski July 31, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Thanks for the advice.
And kudos to Jay for blocking the attempt to copy your site–it’s great to know he’s part of your team, isn’t it?

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Hi Kathryn,

That’s a big “yep.” LOL! Jay fixed a problem on my site today before I even knew about it. :) (My caching plugin was being weird–again–and he replaced it with a different plugin.)

That’s all just part of my point about us looking out for each other. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kathryn Goldman July 31, 2013 at 7:36 pm

I’m glad the problem was fixed.

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Hi Kathryn,

Me too! Thanks again for the heads up! :)

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Kathryn Goldman July 31, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Jami,

I would just like to add two points.

First, obtaining a Registration on your work from the Copyright Office not only gives you the right to sue the offender/pirate/plagarist, it gives your lawyer the opportunity to recover attorneys’ fees (an incentive). The Registration must be obtained before the infringement takes place. My recommendation is to file the application for copyright on your work before publishing.

Second, Amazon’s KDP contract states (in section 5.7), that if a third party (“pirate”) makes sales of your infringed material then you are entitled to be paid the Royalties due for those sales and Amazon will take the book down.

Along with all the other jobs of a self-published author comes the job of policeman. You must protect your work.

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Hi Kathryn,

Great additions to the tips! Thanks for sharing. :)

Yes, I’ve heard that’s what Amazon’s contract states. However, I’ve also heard it’s not that clear cut when it comes to actual situations. First, if Amazon has already paid the plagiarist, they’ve stated that the author has to go after the plagiarist for the money. Not sure how that meshes with their contract or if this is a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand promised, but I know that’s been their answer to some of the authors this has happened to. Second, if they haven’t paid out the money to the plagiarist yet, they’ll often just refund the customer, so there wouldn’t be a sale to pay royalties on.

In other words, I’d be interested in hearing more about how that clause works in real life. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jeremy Duley July 31, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Hey Jami! Great post! Some authors make it even easier for the crooks by putting their entire books online as blog posts! Talk about giving your book away for free! Luckily I was fortunate to stumble across your blog and Kristen Lamb’s also. You guys have really helped with my learning curve when it comes to the business side of writing.

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Jami Gold July 31, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Hi Jeremy,

Aww, thanks! I’m happy to help. :)

Great point about the dangers of putting our entire book online. Also, as was mentioned in the comments above, that means the author can no longer sell first publishing rights. Thanks for the comment!

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copper August 23, 2013 at 8:37 am

I read your post earlier in July and thought about it the rest of the summer. I’m deeply troubled by something I discovered about the Mortal Bones series, and how it relates to plagiarism and popularity. And I keep coming back to my thoughts on this post. Authors need to protect themselves in from content scrapers and pirates — but what if the author is doing the pirating to garner success?

So what I discovered, just doing a search for the plot, was that the Mortal Bones is based on a fanfic. Cool, I thought, and I went to check it out. But next is in the search string was fanfic + plagiarism. So it turns out that Cassandra Clare pliagiarized large swaths of her fanfic, lifting scenes almost word for word from books and tv shows (Buffy) and inserted them in her fanfic, only changing the character’s names. She did this as an adult writer, not a teen who didn’t know better.

This, to me, goes far beyond the “filing the names off the fanfic” as Gabaldon put it. Plagiarism is unacceptable in any arena. And I am dismayed that the larger focus has been that she wrote this as a fanfic, not that she plagiarized major swaths of that fanfic (which is well-documented online).

I don’t have a problem with fanfic — it’s a fertile ground for beginning writers. It’s compost. But in accepting a work that had it’s origins and plagiarism, are we silently crossing the bar into something more insidious than mere inception in a writers’ sandbox, to hijacking of other’s words to promote the fanfic author’s own fame and credibility. Because it worked for her. She took this piece built of other people’s words and shopped it around. Then she rewrote it (apparently) into something that was…well, I don’t know if it was original or if it was liability free. I don’t know which was the guiding force there.

“50 Shades of Grey” presents one set of problems — gaining popularity by riding on the surge of another work. But “Mortal Instruments” presents another — that of authors plagiarizing to get the fame which they will then trade on. It doesn’t bother me that it’s a Hermione/Draco fanfic repackaged. It troubles me deeply that none of the media outlets seem bothered by the fact that the first draft was littered with stolen words.

It’s bit like finding out the high school valedictorian copied all his ninth grade A+ papers from his older brother. He didn’t actually do the work, but he gets the credit for it in the end.

It sets a bad precedent for everything that comes behind it. Do we accept authors that have been known plagiarists in the past? Even if it’s on ff.net, where people like to say things don’t really count?

*whew* glad i got that off my chest! lol! Love your blog and your site! Thank you so much for posting interesting, thought-provoking posts, and for being a place that welcomes discussion. I truly appreciate it!

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Jami Gold August 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

Hi Copper,

I’ve heard bits and pieces about that series as well, mostly through my readers. From what I’ve heard, the fanfic used lines from other stories. CC has claimed those snippets were copied on purpose for homage reasons.

Some apparently liked that approach (finding the references became a game) and some didn’t (calling it plagiarism). To make the situation more confusing in regards to CC’s intentions, sometimes those snippets were credited and sometimes they weren’t credited until pointed out. (I’m not clear if all snippets were eventually credited. Also, I’m not clear if she used so many she lost track, if she started getting lazy/deceitful about crediting, or if she purposely left off the credit at first as part of the “game” for her readers.)

What’s never been clear to me–and I’ve asked–is how much her published series resembles the fanfic version. Some claim it’s nearly identical, which I’d have a real problem with, just as you mentioned here. Some claim CC took the bones of the fanfic and rewrote the story from scratch, which would get rid of the copied/plagiarized snippets. (I’ve said before that I don’t have a problem with reusing premises because premises aren’t unique to begin with.) The people claiming one way or another apparently don’t have the original fanfic to compare to the published stories, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and prove which claim is correct.

In most plagiarism cases, the accuser is able to produce screen shots as proof. I’ve seen screen shots of the original (non-CC) source and the section in the fanfic, but she’s admitted to that copying/plagiarism usage for homage purposes. What I haven’t seen is screen shots of those two side-by-side with a comparable section in the published book. It strikes me as curious that no one has come forward with that proof yet given the popularity of the fanfic and the bestselling status of the published author.

I don’t engage in witch hunts, so I wouldn’t accuse someone of publishing plagiarism without seeing the proof for myself. There’s a large segment of the fandom who doesn’t like CC for her plagiarism/homage approach in the fanfic. (And I’m not saying I blame them, but I have no dog in that fight.) However, I have to take their motivations into consideration when deciding whether to believe their claims when I’ve seen no proof.

So, was its origin based in fanfic? Yes. Some dislike it for that reason alone, and I can certainly understand that. Was the fanfic version a mishmash of plagiarized snippets? Yes. CC claims this was on purpose for homage and game/entertainment reasons. True or not, I can understand those disliking the style and precedent of that choice regardless. Was the published story rewritten from scratch from the fanfic? I don’t know, and no one that I’ve seen has shared proof one way or another.

Personally, I see a broad range of difference between names-changed pull-to-publish and rewritten-from-the-ground-up P2P, but others will have their own opinion. I think it likely that the story is highly derivative and copycat in any case (much in the same way that Eragon and Percy Jackson felt like rehashes). I haven’t read the books for that rehash reason alone. From an ethical standpoint, however, I haven’t formed an opinion on this specific story because I’m not clear where CC’s work falls on that P2P line.

One thing that you’re spot on about is how the lack of clarity in this case makes the slope between fanfic and published fiction even slipperier. Whether she started from scratch or not, the question itself creates a sense of precedence that such a thing is possible and perhaps acceptable. That’s not a good situation.

I hadn’t addressed this issue before, so thank you for bringing it up and adding to the discussion. Thanks for the comment! :)

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Jami Gold August 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Hi Copper,

As if my original reply wasn’t long enough… LOL!

You’ve probably already seen this article, but this post on Yahoo talks about that derivative issue. This is something that I’ve been talking about with fan fiction for a year and a half.

What fanfic authors (and copycat authors) too often don’t realize is that there’s subtext in virtually every aspect of a story. Some look at the surface character traits or plot events and tweak things here and there in an attempt to be “unique.”

However, as my many posts about the subject make clear, I’m a big fan of subtext. :) What that means is that I analyze these subconscious clues more than most people. But nearly everyone, whether they’re looking for it or not, recognizes subtext on a subconscious level.

My theory is that when a story feels excessively derivative or like a rehash, it’s because the author did a plug-and-play, not realizing that the superficial changes don’t gel with the remaining subtext of the original story. At best, the subtext will match, but only because it completely copies the original story. If there’s no unique subtext, we’ll feel like we’ve been-there-read-that and there’s no point to this story. At worst, the story will feel uneven as the subtext of the new doesn’t match the subtext of the old. If the mismatch is bad enough, all sense of the subtext will be lost, leaving a story that feels superficial in every respect.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to fan fiction. Any trend (currently New Adult and erotica, but back when CC released her books, it had been YA) will become infected with copycat authors. They’re essentially doing a similar plug-and-play as fanfic authors, but less blatantly and maybe less directly. Worse, some of these releases will become popular, which only encourages others.

Again, thanks for the great discussion and comment! :)

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