About six months ago, I was dealing with a very difficult case of plagiarism. One girl, a high school student in California, had spread copies of over a dozen of my poems across several sites, forums and profiles.
Tracking down her abuses of my copyright was a mammoth task. However, one of the links off of her main site proved very interesting. It was a link to lulu.com, where she had published a collection of “her” poetry and was selling it online.
I froze in terror. I knew that if her print collection mirrored her online one, it was comprised solely of my plagiarized work and the work of others. In short, it became the first time I had ever found anyone who was working to make a profit off of plagiarizing my poems.
It was a rude awakening for me and a trip into the modern world of self publishing.
The incident itself ended well. The girl involved was absent-minded enough to post a large volume of personal information online. I was able to track down her home phone number where I spoke with her mom. She, in turn, told me not to worry about anything and that she would handle it.
A woman of her word, the books were taken down within a few hours and all of the sites disappeared.
Still, the whole affair left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a lot of concerns. Though I love the concept of Lulu and what the company is trying to achieve (I’ve even considered it for my own use on my other site), there’s clearly a lot of room for misuse and many reasons for copyright holders to be concerned.
In The Dark
One of the things that truly bothers me is that I still, to this day, don’t know if any of my work was in any of the books in question. I assumed so since her other online poetry collections were filled with my pieces, but, for all I know, the books could have been something completely different.
Since the books on Lulu are not searchable by content and the previews only provide a few pages, the only way I could have found out would have been to purchase the book, thus profiting my plagiarist, and look at it when it arrived.
Personally, I do not think that it’s acceptable to force a copyright holder to spend money to find out if his work has been plagiarized. Online, one simply needs to view the page in question, in a bookstore, one can leaf through the pages and even music stores offer previews of entire CDs. Lulu.com is one of the few places where a copyright holder is pushed into buying something just to find out if their work is being misused.
The solution that Lulu offers to the matter is that, if one suspects plagiarism of their work on the service, that they can report the infringement and let officials at Lulu, who have access to the master files, do the checking for them. According to Lulu QA Geek Joe Komenda, the service errs on the side of caution saying that it’s, “Better we lose a few dollars than infringe on someone. We understand that we live or die by our reputation.”
Still, this assumes you’re even able to discover if your material is anywhere on Lulu. I only discovered my plagiarist because she had posted my works elsewhere online. No doubt many do not make that mistake.
As I said earlier, the works on Lulu are not searchable by content, it would take a cosmic coincidence for a copyright holder to discover that his work had appeared in such a book. Since Lulu doesn’t patrol their site actively for copyrighted material, such a discovery would require a third party to have to read both works, remember the original and then track down the copyright holder to let them know what’s going on.
In my personal experience, that’s a very rare thing and not something that should ever be counted on happening.
Self publishing, or vanity publishing as it is often called, has been around almost as long as traditional publishing. However, it’s only with Lulu that many have been expressing concern regarding copyright violations.
The reason isn’t that Lulu is a bad service or is run by evil individuals, but because they make self publishing available to everyone. Unlike competing services such as IUniverse, which charge high upfront fees, Lulu doesn’t charge anything for setting up basic books and only makes money off of printed copies.
While this opens up the world of publishing to the masses, it also opens up the potential for abuse. Where, previously, most people weren’t likely to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to publish someone else’s work, they are much more likely to do it when its free and they hope they feel that they can make a few quick bucks off of a collection of hastily amassed plagiarized material.
Lulu, for their part, say that they’re a “strong supporter of copyrights” and forbid the use of copyrighted material on their site in their terms of service. They also, according to Komenda aren’t oblivious and do shut down obvious cases of copyright infringement such as “Harry Potter” books and other flagrant violations. Still, given the fact that nothing on Lulu is moderated before it goes up, it is impossible to police the content. As such, incidents such as the one at Applegeeks happen without Lulu as much as knowing that they’re involved in a copyright controversy.
Though they have a very strict policy regarding removing infringing works and withholding ill-gotten royalties, making such a discovery is a grave challenge and their model could quickly become prone to rampant abuse and negatively impact the long-term viability of their business model.
Napster in Reverse
There is no doubt that file sharing has legitimate uses. It can be used to quickly disseminate all kinds of work both quickly and cheaply. However, rampant copyright infringement combined with an industry hatred for the new business model quickly landed the major file sharing companies on the wrong end of major lawsuits and pushed their networks either into bankruptcy or deep into the dark waters of the Internet.
The same forces, or the paper versions of them at least, are poised to attack Lulu should the copyright infringement element of its service get too far out of hand. Though nearly all of the authors on the service now are completely legit, with black hats writing scripts to create splogs and other acts of mass plagiarism, it seems only logical that a similar attack on sites like Lulu is in the future. Though there are many obstacles in the book/CD creation process that would thwart such an effort, the same has been said about many services that have since been badly broken.
To a potential plagiarist, Lulu would work like Napster in reverse. Rather than using the service to obtain commercial works for free, they would use Lulu to turn free works into commercial ones for their profit. Rather than using ad revenue to make money, Lulu would be a direct route and, even without automation, a plagiarist could amass a sizeable library and profit from it.
According to Komenda, Lulu is prepared for this possibility saying that, if someone tried it, they’d “cut them off pretty quickly.” Also, he says, bots don’t produce any marketing and that, even though over 2/3 of their books are sold to non-authors, wouldn’t likely sell any copies.
Still, as spammers have taught us, if you throw enough pitches in the air, one will certainly be bought. Economies of scale don’t require great odds, just a few suckers. In the end, I sincerely hope that Lulu is right about its ability to cut off those who try to create spam books. That may be what it all comes down to.
Personally, I love the concept of Lulu and what it has to offer. However, I fear not only for my own materials, but for the longevity of the business model. I fear that more and more plagiarists will sink their teeth into Lulu, both as an alternative to a traditional Web site and as a chance to make money, while both violating copyright and ruining a potential revolution for the rest of the world.
Because, if Lulu and similar services become havens for plagiarism and copyright infringement, there’s simply no way that they can survive. Even if the lawsuits don’t break them, the image and infamy of such a system will drive the legitimate authors away in droves.
After all, no one will want to be associated with such a brand of publishing if it earns that kind of reputation and, quite frankly, it’s hard enough to get authors to take vanity publishing seriously as it is.
For the sake of Lulu and the rebirth of publishing, I hope my fears never come true.
[tags]Plagiarism, Lulu, Copyright Infringement, Splogs, File Sharing, Copyright, Applegeeks[/tags]