Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Amazon, plagiarism, and self-publishing

Piracy. Plagiarism. Publishing. “P” words have been getting a lot of attention in the news lately, particularly with growing concerns about SOPA.

Amid all of the coverage on Internet blackout protests and Apple announcements, another story caught my attention: Amazon’s plagiarism problem. Although this article from Fast Company focuses on the issue of plagiarism and content farming in the erotica genre, Adam Penenberg points out that this is a significant problem that plagues all areas of self-publishing. Already a major thorn in the sides of authors, publishers, and readers alike, this is an issue that will continue to grow in complexity, frequency, and yes, annoyance, as more of these channels are made available for public use.

The article is a real eye-opener, and it’s worth a read in full if you have the time. Unfortunately, despite the positive qualities of self-publishing, it removes the “gatekeeper” aspect of traditional publishing and it makes plagiarism easy, no matter how blatantly obvious. Pilfered titles are hardly even reworded, and many of these ebooks are peddling stolen texts from classic, recognizable works that any editor, or even book lover, really, could recognize instantly. (Dracula, anyone?)

One example mentioned in this article was of David Weaver, “a 52-year-old math teacher whose story “Galactic Slave” was being sold for Kindle as Slave of the Galaxies,” by serial plagiarist, Robin Scott.  Weaver was quoted as saying, “‘what makes this kind of theft so insidious is how easy it is to get away with and avoid getting caught.'”

Another concern is that there isn’t an easy fix. While you can report the issue, and Amazon will remove the books in question, as Penenberg points out, repeat offenders can go right back to adding new stolen content. Obviously, Amazon is a giant, and as you might imagine, their response to these issues is perhaps not as expedient as many authors would like.

Last year, for example, self-published author Steve Karmazenuk discovered that some of his ebooks were being plagiarized. Karmazenuk published his work under a Creative Commons license, and anyone could download the ebook for free. He became outraged when he discovered others were taking his work and selling it for profit. Unsatisfied with Amazon’s resolution, he posted his experience on his blog. His complaint with Amazon, of course, is that submissions are not properly verified for ownership.

With so much content available on the web, unscrupulous offenders practically have an entire playground at their fingertips. Just to give you one more recent example, Elise Bauer, food blogger at Simply Recipes, discovered that her recipes and photos had been stolen and repackaged as an ebook through Amazon’s Kindle store. After complaining, Amazon informed Bauer that they unlisted the book, but if she believed she was entitled to compensation by the guilty parties, it was up to her to take action.

Well, no wonder people are angry. For someone who never submitted her content to Amazon in the first place, why is the onus on her to play avenger?

And apparently, according to the Bauer article, it is pretty easy to bypass the system—you simply have to check a box verifying that you have the rights to use the content. If someone is stealing someone else’s work in the first place, obviously they’re not going to have any problem checking that box, no matter who owns the material.

Though Amazon is supposedly improving their efforts to catch these infractions, let’s face it, it’s going to be tough. I’m not defending them, because if they’re offering the service, they ought to be held accountable. But a company of that size with their hands in so many different pots, coupled with the sheer volume of submitted content, is quite frankly a recipe for disaster. This stuff is going to fall through the cracks. That’s just how it is. And it will keep on going, unfortunately, until an author or a loyal reader discovers that something has been pirated. Of course, I should mention that it’s not just Amazon, either. The Fast Company article also mentioned some plagiarized content sold by Apple. It’s an issue that comes with the self-publishing territory.

But I did not write this post to support the efforts behind SOPA (full disclosure, I’m 100% against), but I recognize that piracy is a big issue, and potentially, it may only get worse.

Rather, I wrote this post to remind all of us that the roles of publisher and editor are not going anywhere, despite all of the naysayers.

Even publishers are not perfect: catching fraudulent content isn’t easy, and every now and then, mistakes happen. I’m sure many of us remember the Kaavya Viswanathan debacle, and while not necessarily plagiarism, some individuals like James Frey have had different definitions of how much truth a memoir should really contain.

My point is, when it comes to content this stuff is hard to catch, even to the trained eye. But for all the accounts you hear about after the fact, you don’t hear about the number of book deals rejected due to a shady pitch. You don’t hear about them, because they don’t get a book deal.

Although technology is fantastic for streamlining processes, there are no economies of scale when it comes to content. With the exception of James Patterson maybe, you cannot tell a writer, “Look, you’ve already written a book, so this next one should take you 30% less time to write.” There are no shortcuts to the content aspect, and this is where the self-publishing model fails.

So what can be done?

Well, it seems to me self-published authors are asking for a better verification process. Technology isn’t cutting it; it sounds to me that you need an actual, real person involved. And if someone has to review and approve self-published submissions to ensure true ownership, then it is hardly a self-publishing model anymore, right?

So, despite all the glitz and glam associated with various technological advancements, content is still king. Without it, obviously, who would even need an ereader? Amazon, Apple, and Google may be brilliant when it comes to customer service and technological innovations, which largely depend on these economies of scale, but I am still convinced that when it comes to the actual content, no one knows it better than publishers.

One comment on “Amazon, plagiarism, and self-publishing

  1. Pingback: Diana Peterfreund Blog | Plagiarism: It Still Sucks

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This entry was posted on January 26, 2012 by in Business, Opinion and tagged , .

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