Remember that report about how rife with plagiarized and duplicate books Amazon’s self-published titles are? Its author, Adam Penenberg, has written a follow-up article for Fast Company in which he tracked down one of the plagiarists to find out more about how and why he had published the title.
The plagiarist is a Kuwaiti national who used the pseudonym “Luke Ethan”. Luke explains that he had gotten a lead on an Internet marketing forum to a private black-hat forum (with a $500 entrance fee), where he paid $100 for what he was told was a collection of material with permission to reformat and resell as e-books. One of those works was an incestuous short story, “I Remember Mother”, by David H. Springer, that someone had reformatted into “My Step Mom Loves Me”. (The change from mother to step mom came about because Amazon doesn’t permit works featuring actual incest to be sold on it store.)
Springer complained to Amazon, and got back a notice from Amazon saying that its plagiarizer had made about $560 from it, and if he felt he was entitled to compensation, he should take it up with that person. For his part, Luke says he was entirely unaware the material had been plagiarized. (Though given the dodgy nature of how he acquired it, not to mention that Amazon’s policies also disallow reformatted duplicate material even when it comes with legitimate permission, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him.)
Nevertheless, Warrior Forum continues to be awash in copyright infringement come-ons. "If you go to the warriorforum and ask around, there are hundreds of people offering to sell you books with publishing rights," Luke says. Check out this ad, posted in its special offers group, for "The Kindle Secret: Want to Create Kindle Books in 15 Minutes or less?" The person behind it hawks a guide for $17 that explains how he’s "dominating" one "hidden Kindle niche." He claims to be "outsourcing books" for "$20 a pop (can you get a whole Kindle book created for $20?) and selling them on the Kindle for $2.99 each," promising that his books "require no marketing and still sell like crazy," with each title earning between $40 and $300 a month. "I don’t write a thing," he brags. He just creates the covers, uploads the content then moves on to the next book. "This is completely scalable. Want to go big? Create 100 books for $2,000 and you’ll have major passive income set up for you in just a couple of weeks."
It is unclear whether Amazon is legally obligated to pay “I Remember Mother”’s original author anything, even though it received 40% of the revenues (about $380) from their sale. The Kindle Direct Publishing Agreement includes a provision stating that Amazon will pay victims of piracy “the Royalties due in connection with any sales of the Digital Book through the Program, and will remove the Digital Book from future sale through the Program, as your sole and exclusive remedy.” (Which makes it a bit odd that Amazon told Springer that if he wanted any money from “My Step Mom Loves Me”, he’d need to take it up with Luke Ethan.) But if Amazon were to be sued, it could undoubtedly tie up the litigant in court for years.
Penenberg notes that this is probably a major reason behind Amazon and other tech companies’ vocal opposition to SOPA and PIPA:
If made into law both could have armed copyright holders with weapons to do battle with websites that host infringing material. In theory, without the hassle of attaining a court order, a single complainant might have been able to force credit card companies to suspend Amazon’s financial transactions, Google and Bing to erase it from search results, and DNS providers to cloak the site so users couldn’t easily find it. One slip up and the impact on a site like Amazon could be devastating.
Without those bills, Amazon is in the clear over plagiarized material as long as it makes a “good-faith effort” to remove it when it’s told about it. And it doesn’t have to pay plagiarized authors like Springer a cent.
It’s not terribly surprising to learn that there is a very active underbelly of the Internet devoted to selling digital snake oil like private label rights and plagiarized material for “instant” Kindle publication. It’s the tragedy of the commons—any time something could be abused for a quick profit, there will be those who will try to profit, directly or indirectly, from abusing it.
It would be nice if there were a way for plagiarized authors to get their own back from Amazon. It is doubtful Springer could ever recover anything from a citizen of Kuwait. But it would probably take a carefully-balanced law without the potential for abuse inherent in SOPA and PIPA, and it remains to be seen if the content industries are capable of or even interested in producing such a thing.