Amazon’s Erotica Plagiarism Debacle

Kindle Direct Publishing LogoWhen it comes to plagiarism, Amazon has been dominating the news this past weekend, largely due to an article by Adam Penenburg of Fast Company, who detailed Amazon’s recent troubles with plagiarism in its erotica section.

The problem is fairly simple. Amazon, through its Kindle Direct Publishing program, makes it easy for authors and small publishers to upload works for sale on the Kindle platform. However, as with any other self-publishing platform, the system has become a target for abuse by plagiarists and others wanting to turn a quick buck selling the creators of others.

In Penenburg’s article, for example, one of the authors had 19 ebooks that were entirely stolen, often from free sites such as Literotica. Though Amazon removes infringing/plagiarized content when notified, the process is generally very slow and, since there’s no punishment for plagiarizing authors, many just set up shop again and re-upload the same works under different titles.

The cycle repeats itself and little changes. However, this isn’t exactly a new problem for Amazon. Copyright blunders have been a major part of the Kindle’s growth. Back in 2009, Amazon introduced a means for bloggers to sell Kindle versions of their site and forgot to put any checks to make sure it was the site owner doing the selling.

This also isn’t a new issue for the larger self-publishing industry. Back in 2005, in what was one of the first articles on Plagiarism Today, I took a look at self publisher Lulu and it’s practices with plagiarism. In 2007, I re-visited self publishers and rated their DMCA policies. Though Amazon wasn’t involved in that comparison, CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary was and received a B-.

But exactly how much is Amazon to blame for its plagiarism problems? In my view, quite a good deal and, simply put, the situation isn’t going to improve without a lot of work from Amazon to make things better.

My Amazon Problem

Look Closer ImageOf all of the sites I work with regularly, Amazon is easily one of the worst. The response times to DMCA notices are slow, they throw up artificial roadblocks to filing them (until recently, they didn’t even post their DMCA contact email on their site) and generally not responding at all to some claims until the second or third try.

In my experience, cyberlocker sites, web hosts and even Google are much easier to work with and bring about an effective response in a much more timely manner.

In 2005, Amazon fought hard and won DMCA protection over its services. Since then, for the most part, Amazon has done the bare minimum to maintain that protection and has done little to help keep its products clean. Even as Ebay was pioneering IP enforcement with its Verified Rights Owners (VeRO) program, Amazon has, for the most part, done as little as it can to get by.

The problem is that this isn’t just an intellectual property issue for Amazon, it’s a customer one as well. Going back to Penenburg’s article, if a buyer purchased “Dracula’s Amazing Adventure” only to find out that it was really just a plagiarized version of “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, which is in the public domain and available for free on the Kindle, how is the buyer likely to react?

Amazon, a company that usually earns high marks for customer service, is putting its Kindle customers at risk of being scammed by plagiarists by not taking this situation more seriously and doing more to stop it.

Even worse, Amazon is risking tarnishing its entire brand, especially of its Kindle line, byt not doing more to stop plagiarism and keep infringing authors out.

What Should Amazon Be Doing

Even if the law doesn’t say so, ethically, when you’re selling and earning revenue from works being uploaded through your service, you have a higher degree of responsibility than a regular web host. This is not just for the authors who might be victimized, but for the customers putting down money on a product and the legitimate authors who are using your system in the intended manner.

In Penenburg’s article, ideas were kicked around such as passing all uploaded books through a plagiarism checker, such as iThenticate, and having new mambers of the program register a credit card both for identification purposes and to issue a financial penalty if plagiarism is discovered.

While these ideas are great, the main thing that has to happen is that Amazon has to get tough with its own policies and take these issues seriously. While all self-publishers have issues with plagiarism to some degree, taking the matter seriously, investigating cases thoroughly and removing works quickly are a good first step. Couple that with a plagiarism policy that has teeth, such as requiring plagiarists to repay revenue received, would help a lot to discourage this kind of abuse.

However, that’s going to require that Amazon change its overall position on copyright matters and shift from being a company that does only what’s required or convient to one that is proactive and forward-thinking on these issues.

I don’t see that happening on Amazon, though I’m hoping that this recent round of bad press gets them thinking more about these issues.

Bottom Line

To be clear, I think that Amazon is, despite this, an overall positive for content creators. Not only does it help creators earn money, bypass middle men and get a worldwide audience almost instantly, it’s done so while, mostly, being fair to creators.

Likewise, it’s also my belief that the number of actual plagiarists posting to Amazon is small. It’s just that, due to how easy it is to post a plagiarized book, they tend to be more prolific and can take up a larger share of the “noise’ then they should.

Despite this, there’s definitely room for improvement and this is one of those areas. Both for the sake of authors and buyers, Amazon needs to look long and hard at this plagiarism problem and come up with real solutions to them.

Because, while they’ll never be able to completely eliminate plagiarism, counterfeit or otherwise false offerings on its services, it can definitely do more to reduce them drastically. That will help make the experience better for everyone and, in the long run, help make the market better and earn everyone more money.

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