Try this experiment. Go to Amazon and pull up any book, any book at all as long as it has been out for at least a few months. Then, search for the title of that book (in quotes) and add either “download”, “PDF”, “epub” or a similar second term.
If you dig in the results far enough, you’ll find countless sites that appear to be offering the book for free download. However, if you start clicking the links, you’ll realize pretty quickly that the book is nowhere to be found on the site.
Even after you jump through the hoops, click past the ads and close the inevitable popup windows, you’ll find that you either have to enter your credit card info, share on social media, take a survey or otherwise “pay” for the download. But even after that, you’ll find that the download is not there. Instead, you’re either told the link couldn’t be found or you’ll be directed into a never-ending loop of obstacles with now download on the horizon.
The reason is simple. Spammers and scammers have seized upon ebook piracy as means not to offer illegal downloads, but to gum up the search engines with spammy links that, at best, trick people in viewing a lot of pointless ads and, at worst, try to scam users out of their personal information.
However, these sites pose a real problem not just for potential pirates, but for ebook authors. This is especially true for so-called “long tail” authors for whom these links can make up a large percentage of any search query for their book.
Dealing with these sites, however, has proved to be a formidable challenge as it’s a problem without any easy answers.
Understanding Ebook Piracy Spam
To be clear, ebook piracy is still a very serious problem. As with movie and music piracy, popular works are widely pirated online through BitTorrent and other piracy-focused sites. There are even sites that focus specifically on ebook piracy and sites that get more specific than that, focusing on genres or types of books.
Also, the issue isn’t that fake/spam download sites aren’t a problem for other types of content. You can type in “Metallica MP3” into a search engine and find similar sites. Even on “legitimate” piracy sites, finding the real download button has been likened to Indiana Jones picking the real Holy Grail.
Instead, the issue has more to do with the “long tail” nature of ebook spam. The reason is because spammers have been fairly successful at scraping content from Amazon and similar sites, making it possible to grab all of the metadata for nearly every book published.
This means spammers have a near-complete library of information including title, author, description, publisher, ISBN, and cover art for nearly every book ever released, including those sold only in print and those sold only in digital formats.
From there, it’s a simple matter of putting that information into a template and making it appear that you have the books available for easy download. Then all one has to do is put the links out there, get them indexed by the search engines and wait for the traffic to come in.
How these sites are monetized varies. Some sites just use a ton of ads, others attempt to install malware while still others attempt to scam users into turning over their credit cards or other personal data. Either way, nothing good comes from these sites.
For spammers, this is largely a game of numbers. By claiming to be a resource to download millions of ebooks, the site is hoping that a handful of pages will gain traction in Google and drive traffic. Even if 99.9% of the links they create go nowhere, the site can still be a success for the spammer.
For many book authors, this has created a sense of dread. Even if a book is successful within its niche, if it doesn’t have an extremely high level of popularity, widespread piracy probably isn’t a major problem. Yet, when authors and even publishers search for their own works, they find a deluge of “free download” sites that pollute the results.
But all of this leads to a big question: If these sites aren’t actually offering downloads, what harm are they doing? The answer depends on how you look at them.
The Harm of Ebook Piracy Spam
The most obvious harm these do is to the search engine results. Even if a book is widely available, there’s likely only a few places where it can be purchased (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). As a result, these spam sites can appear prominently even for those who are searching to buy a copy.
While they won’t be able to download the book, potential buyers might get sidetracked by their attempt to pirate it…
While they won’t be able to download the book, potential buyers might get sidetracked by their attempt to pirate it and choose not to spend money for something that they think (wrongly) that they can get for free.
However, there is a counter-argument that these sites might be helping authors. Since those who do intend to pirate find it more difficult to find legitimate links, they may be more motivated to purchase a copy.
But that argument falls flat because those who are dedicated to piracy, most likely, already have trusted sites they pull from. If they are turning to Google, it’s because they’re already struggling to find a copy. Instead, the links are much more likely to appear before a potential buyer than a dedicated pirate, meaning these links can, potentially, lead to lost sales.
That being said, the biggest problem in my experience seems to be author concern. I’ve been approached by dozens of ebook authors wanting my help eliminating these kinds of sites. However, I’ve turned down every single one, not just because of legal difficulties, but because it probably isn’t worth the energy at this time.
That’s because fighting these sites is difficult and, even if they do harm authors, the harm probably isn’t worth the cost of action.
Fighting Ebook Piracy Spammers
The normal advice for dealing with piracy is to either send a takedown notice and get the infringing content removed or, at the very least, send one to Google and get it removed from the search indexes.
Since they aren’t hosting the book and there’s nothing copyrightable about the pure metadata… there’s nothing infringing about the page…
However, with these types of sites, the problem is a little bit different. Since they aren’t hosting the book and there’s nothing copyrightable about the pure metadata (copyright doesn’t apply to simple facts) there’s nothing infringing about the page. While there are likely trademark issues with pretending to offer a book you don’t offer, there’s no trademark equivalent to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and similar laws.
The inclusion of the cover, if the author holds the copyright in it, could offer a potential vector to file a copyright notice, but that’s not something many authors have full copyright in and, even if they do, many spam sites don’t include covers.
But even if you can file a takedown notice, it likely isn’t worthwhile. These are spam sites, not file hosts. They don’t have to re-upload the content, there’s no challenge in relocating and reopening the site as the process can be automated. File against one, whether with their host or with Google, and they can relocate without any delay.
Instead, the only way we are going to get a lasting resolution to this problem is through Google.
Google has made great strides against other types of spam but has yet to really make much headway here. The problem has been around for some time but, for whatever reason, Google has not made a move on it.
In the meantime, the best thing that authors can do is focus on populating the Google results with as much legitimate content as possible. This includes seeking out reviews, doing interviews and writing guest posts about the book.
While it’s easy to dwell on pirate-friendly search terms, the greater emphasis should be put on customer-facing ones and making sure that none of these sites appear there.
Like most spam sites, these tend to thrive most where there is little competition. Give these sites competition, and they quickly get shoveled down to the lower pages.
In the end, this is a spammer-created problem that Google needs to address but has authors in the crossfire.
Handling these sites from a legal standpoint is dubious at best and most likely futile even if an approach can be found. While certain kinds of piracy can be successfully fought through takedown notices and other actions, spam sites don’t have to play by the rules of those who actually host files.
The result of this is simple, authors need to think more about the search results and ensure that there are enough legitimate results to drown out the spam sites. This can be tough because, when a book is freshly published, there won’t be any spam. It won’t be until later, after spammers have been able to scrape the needed information, that they begin to emerge.
However, it’s when a book is new and fresh that it’s best to start building up a collection of legitimate links. Not only will older pages be more trusted, but it helps to get ahead of the problem, stopping the spam issue before it starts.
So while ebook spam is a very serious problem, dealing with the spam issue requires a different approach. It’s not a problem you can fix with DMCA notices and cease and desist letters, rather it’s one that requires a more proactive and positive approach.
In the end, there will likely be plenty of actual pirates to send copyright notices to. Don’t waste your energy on fakers.