Ahoy, Amazon, Google, and Apple! There Be E-Book Pirates Ahead

Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 4:20 PM EDT

The e-book spam hitting Amazon's (AMZN) Kindle marketplace has become a big problem. Increasingly, this market is glutted with titles assembled from licensed, pre-packaged information, which makes it much harder to sift through to find something worth buying and reading. Worse, spammers are also flooding the market with illegal e-book copies of legitimate titles -- a brand-new spin on piracy.

Here's how it works. People lift already published stories or even entire books and sell them under their own or assumed names. Not only does this cause problems for the actual authors of the work, but the self-publishing trend could put Amazon, Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Barnes & Noble (BKS), and other e-book sellers in legal danger, whether they realized there was a piracy problem or not.

Full spam ahead
Some, like Mike Essex at SEO marketing agency Koozai, have long predicted that e-books will become the next big spam target and that stolen content would play a big role in that. Here's his basic analysis:
  • E-book distributors don't run titles through software that might find copyright infringement.
  • Spammers can create a book quickly and use multiple accounts with variations in titles to make one book appear to be a number of separate titles.
  • Reviewers generally won't notice if someone stole content, so buyers may have no warning that a given title is bogus.
  • Spammers can make more money via e-book spam than they can hawking Viagra by email, so many will redirect their efforts.
I'd add another: Stealing content and publishing it as an e-book is simplicity itself compared to doing something similar with printed works.

The number of e-books one person can generate is mind-boggling. One such "author," Manuel Ortiz Braschi, has become a poster child of factory e-book production. Braschi has nearly 3,700 titles listed on Amazon, 384 more than he had in March.

Something borrowed, something blue
Some of Braschi's titles are old public domain works available elsewhere for free, which he's repackaged -- sometimes after adding his name as a co-author. Some can be found online, although it's not clear that they're necessarily legally available. For example, the 1959 science fiction book Pagan Passions is listed on various free book sites, although it's too recent a work to have fallen automatically into the public domain. And it seems unlikely that Braschi has the rights to publish an e-book version of science fiction author Lester del Ray's Pursuit.

E-book farming gets even more problematic when the works are clearly pirated from living writers. E-book erotica publisher and author Selena Kitt emailed me to say that she had found works pirated from some of her authors on Amazon. Another erotica author, Tracy Ames, found a number of her works stolen and selling in Kindle editions. Book marketing expert John Kremer wrote me last month about writers who found pirated versions of their works. A number of authors have complained that they've notified Amazon but heard nothing back.

Happy, happy lawyers
If this is happening on Amazon, it could just as easily be an issue on any other e-book market, including those of Google and Apple. That puts all the companies into a potentially sticky bind. Under U.S. copyright law, anyone who violates an exclusive right of a copyright owner -- and distributing copies of a work is on the list -- "is an infringer of the copyright or right of the author."

And should the author have registered copyright with the Copyright Office, the statutory damages start at $750 per copy and can go as high as $30,000, "as the court considers just," plus legal costs. If the court finds that the infringer was unaware of the problem, it can reduce the award ... but to not less than $200 per incident. That's one hell of an expensive ebook.

Widespread piracy could become a nice little side business for a class action lawyer. And yet, the distributors are stuck, because not all content is available in electronic form. That could make it a lot harder to tell whether any given e-book has been pirated.

Related: Image: Flickr user juanma, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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