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July 30, 2013

The New Face of Book Pirates: Plagiarists

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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What do you think?

49 Comments on "The New Face of Book Pirates: Plagiarists"

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kim cleary

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

Kitt Crescendo

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.

Carradee
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… Read more »
Amanda

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.

Pauline Baird Jones

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. 🙂

Ainsley Wynter
Ainsley Wynter

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.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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.

Kassandra Lamb
Kassandra Lamb

Valuable info. Thanks, Jami!

Fiona Ingram
Fiona Ingram
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… Read more »
Char Mercer
Char Mercer

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

Kathryn Jankowski

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?

Kathryn Goldman

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.

Jeremy Duley

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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[…] our work is just as important as protecting ourselves. Jami Gold takes a look at the new face of piracy—plagiarism—and what we can do to fight back. And speaking of stealing work, here’s a great article from […]

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[…] Jami Gold explains the New Face of Book Pirates and makes some good points! – The Face of Book Pirates […]

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[…] Gold: The New Face of Book Pirates: Plagiarists. Excerpt: “The reality of book pirates is far scarier than we think. Welcome to a wild, […]

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[…] my post about book pirates and plagiarism, I mentioned that book bloggers and reviewers are now more wary of debut authors, especially those […]

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[…] take action if her work is plagiarized. If you’d like more info, read this post by Jami Gold: The New Face of Book Pirates: Plagiarists. In addition to registering your trademark, she suggests running Google alerts for phrases from […]

copper
copper
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… Read more »
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[…] Also, just like the artist-author path doesn’t automatically indicate low quality, this path doesn’t automatically indicate high quality. Plenty of professional-authors have decided the way to maximize their income is by releasing lots and lots of crap. (Or in too many cases, deciding plagiarism is the way to go.) […]

carol allen
carol allen

writers beware,
I have written two books, several poems, etc. that I published myself. They were included in an anthology, printed in a Dallas journal, read on KETR, a university radio station. Since I am an avid reader, I just happened to read an article in “Texas Coop Power” which was based on my book; the writing style was obviously copied and words were lifted in sequence from beginning to end of my book. I recently read a book that included, “I hung my head” threetimes (song by Sting), for no reason it through in a reference to a “Swiss army knife” which was an image used repeatedly in a Mark Haddon book, and there was a description of his father which was written in the same style as in my poem which had been published in an anthology. Coincidences? Why are book publishers not using the same anti-plagarism methods as colleges and universities. It is certainly unfair to those of us who write because once our ideas are stolen then our voice has been stolen from us by writers who are already successful. Have they just gotten lazy or is that the secret to their success?

Laverne
Laverne
You make a very good point about fanfic. I’ve written fanfics since 2006 and one thing that has always bothered me is the lack of ethics. I realize that with fanfiction we are using someone else’s characters. Because of that some of the more ethically challenged writers believe it’s okay to steal. Several years ago I saw this first hand when a no-talent hack decided to ‘borrow’ five elements out of a story I wrote. She even used the MC’s name. She claimed that was a tribute to her dead son. Bearing in mind that in her story that character was mauled by dogs, drugged and raped repeatedly I have serious doubts about the tribute part. When I posted the sequel to my story her family and friends organized a boycott against me. The boycott failed. They harassed me online 24/7 for 6 weeks, but once they saw that I continued (and finished) the story they went away. She even emailed me and told me that if I posted anything else she and her friends would ‘destroy’ me. One thing I did notice was how readers would PM me saying that I should have been flattered that the story was good enough to steal. I received numerous comments to that effect. Now these same people cry and moan that fanfic doesn’t get the respect they think it deserves, yet they give a rubber stamp of approval to shenanigans like this. Fanfic thieves want their 15 minutes of fame and they… Read more »
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[…] true that plagiarism is a big problem these days, but not of unedited, unpublished manuscripts. Pirates can lift books right off fan fiction sites […]

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[…] into a coherent impression of our credibility. They’re attempting to bump junk sites and content scrapers down in Google searches and lift up real people who write real content. Think of Google Authorship […]

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