Ebay: Your Content for Sale

Ars Technica, the popular technology site for PC enthusiasts, hosts a well-known free PlayStation 2 Repair Guide that instructs users how to deal with minor disk read errors. Dave Childs, the owner of ILoveJackDaniels.com, hosts a collection of equally free programming "cheat sheets" that help new programmers remember the commands of their chosen language.

Both sites were surprised to find out that not only was their content being plagiarized, but repackaged and resold on Ebay.

Sadly, though Ebay has become one of the greatest markets for selling legitimate electronic books (eBooks), it's also become one of the most common methods for plagiarists to take freely available content, and package it for an easy dollar. Worse still, as scraping continues to fall out of favor with spammers, ebook plagiarism could become a greater and greater problem for Webmasters.

The Scam

The scam itself is actually very simple.

  1. Locate content that is useful, freely available on the Web but not widely-known.
  2. Repackage the content into a PDF file using freely available software.
  3. Create a long-term Ebay auction for the new eBook
  4. Sell copies of it using the "Buy It Now" button.
  5. Collect money from each sale

It's an especially egregious scam that not only deprives content creators of readership but also gets customers to pay money for something they easily, and legitimately, could have obtained for free. No one but the plagiarist benefits.

A variation of the scam targets legitimate eBook sellers. In that variation, the plagiarist simply buys a copy of the real ebook, usually for just a few dollars, and then resells it, on a different site and/or at a much lower price. It only takes a few ill-gotten sales for the plagiarist to recoup his or her costs since they didn't have to take the time to create the work and the original author, unable to produce fresh content so cheaply, is often forced to pull out.

That scam and variations of it are commonly-cited reasons for eBook authors to leave the market and move into more traditional, harder to plagiarize, forms of publication.

Who's At Risk?

One doesn't have to look at Ebay's Ebook listing (may not be suitable for work) long to figure out what content is selling the most and, thus, most likely to be plagiarized for resale.

How-to guides, especially those related to technology, relationships, sex and money seem to be the most common. Also popular are guides related to avoiding speeding tickets, home remedies, tips and tricks and other self-help books.

Generally speaking, there are very few novels, short stories, fictional works (though some erotica regularly makes an appearance on the list) or other creative expressions. Also, rare are essays, academic works and other kinds of personal expression that might typically be found on a personal Web site.

While this gives many content creators a cause for celebration as their personal works and writings will not likely make their way to an Ebay auction, it gives others a great cause for concern. Guide writers, especially those in the targeted fields, are likely to have their works used in a very damaging and very well-hidden way.

This, quite understandably, leads to queations about how to prevent and handle cases of Ebay plagiarism.

Detection and Cessation

Detecting plagiarisn on Ebay can be a very tricky matter. Since the eBooks are only available after a sale is made and are usually in a very difficult-to-search format, most cases of Ebay plagiarism are reported by friendly readers that spot the infringement. On the other hand, since the auctions are generally held over very long periods of time, if one does semi-regularly searches for areas that they have expertise in (once every few weeks) they might be able to spot infringing auctions on their own.

In terms of stopping plagiarism and copyright infringement, Ebay is something of a pioneer in this area.

About ten years ago, well before the DMCA, Ebay created a program called the Verified Rights Owner Program (VeRO) that enables rights holders to file a DMCA-like notice with Ebay and have the infringing auctions removed. While this has created some controversy as many wonder if it violates the first sale doctrine, it has been held up in court and can greatly aid Webmasters having their content illegally resold.

When using VeRO, a rights holder must first fax a form to Ebay (PDF) to request removal of the infringing auction. After that, they are given information about how to electronically filing future complaints and even getting access to proactive monitoring tools that can help you spot future instances as they go up.

To aid in faxing the initial report, one can always use a free faxing service.  

If that isn't possible, Ebay has also registered its agent for receiving DMCA complaints and appears to accept regular DMCA notices via the contact methods listed there, including email. However, if Ebay plagiarism is expected to be a long-term problem, the VeRO program is almost certainly the better approach to take. 


In the end, the most difficult thing aboud dealing with plagiarism taking place on Ebay is detecting it. We are almost forced to lean upon Ebay's tools, good-natured readers and honest Ebayers to help us out.  Fortunately, they do seem to be at least somewhat effective at this.

Though reports of Ebay's effectiveness in removing plagiarism are mixed, they do appear to have an effective system in place, one that has become a model for other sites in dealing with these matters.

It will be interesting to see if and how this type of plagiarism develops and exactly how cooperative Ebay is regarding these matters.

Needless to say, I will be keeping an eye on this issue and reporting back s things develop. It should be very interesting.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, Ebay, VeRO, DMCA, eBooks[/tags] 

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