Amazon LogoEvery web host and service provider online has some sort of copyright problem. Whether it’s YouTube’s battles with Content ID, Twitter being accused of not removing infringing materials or just hosts like GoDaddy and Hostgator dealing with run-of-the-mill copyright notices, the problem is always there.

However, Amazon’s problem may trump them all.

Amazon has faced copyright and patent infringement lawsuits, has been repeatedly called out for widespread plagiarism in its book store and has earned the wrath of many creators who say that their work appears on Amazon with little to no recourse.

But, in the face of all these issues, Amazon’s response has been lackluster. Those filing copyright notices widely report that Amazon is among the slowest to respond. Just in my work, I find it can take two weeks or longer to see results from a proper DMCA notice filed with Amazon.

Amazon may want to be the world’s marketplace but it’s failing to ensure that it’s creators, not scammers and infringers, who are being rewarded. Unfortunately, unless Amazon can fix that, it’s going to be a cancer eating away at Amazon’s soul and it’s bottom line.

Problems in the Store Front

Amazon Stolen ImageThe Amazon store front is huge. With over 488 million products in the U.S. store alone, it’s easy to see that at least some will have copyright infringements.

However, a lot of those items are not sold by Amazon. Instead, they’re sold by third parties that have chosen to place their products on Amazon, often using Amazon to fulfill any orders.

The problem is that some of these sellers are not ethical. They are routinely selling products that are counterfeit or are otherwise infringing.

This has been an especially large problem for photographers, artists and graphic designers. They often find their work being sold illegally on the site. For example, one photographer discovered that one of his images, as well as others images, were being sold on a variety of tablet and cell phone cases.

Amazon took over four days to remove the original works and even longer to remove other infringing items that were reported.

The issue has been the subject of petitions with thousands of creators coming forward to share their experiences with Amazon.

To be clear, Amazon is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The law provides “safe harbor” to online service providers who host content for third parties. However, this protection is dependent upon them “expeditiously” removing or disabling access to works after receiving a proper DMCA notice. This is something many allege Amazon has not been doing.

One artist, in a private FB group, claimed that Amazon forced her to get a notarized document testifying that she owned the image and provide details about her camera in order to prove she owned a photo. This was despite a DMCA notice and outside proof that her version predated the Amazon version.

Others report that Amazon just ignores their notices or, if they do respond, that it takes days, weeks or even months.

With so many products and so many sellers, it’s understandable that Amazon will have some infringing goods. This problem is compounded by a distribution system that means even the seller might not be aware the product is infringing, especially if their manufacturer or distributor is acting in bad faith.

However, Amazon’s approach to dealing with these cases has left many with a bad taste in their mouth and resulted in many infringing products remaining up much later than they should.

That has left many artists very upset.

Problems in the Kindle

Amazon KindleIn 2009, I spoke about how Amazon’s Kindle Publishing allowed anyone to sell your content. The problem, unfortunately, hasn’t gotten better sense.

Three years later, Amazon attracted headlines again for widespread plagiarism in its Erotica section.

In 2015, an author at The Hustle was able to plagiarize a 2008 book and become a number one bestseller on Amazon. The author had to apologize for accidental copyright infringement, having mistakenly used a book that he thought was in the public domain.

Earlier this year, bestselling crime novelist Eilis O’Hanlon wrote about discovering her books plagiarized on the Kindle store and just last month The Atlantic did its own expose on Kindle plagiarism.

All the headlines, however, haven’t changed Amazon’s practices. It still does little to prevent Kindle plagiarism and is still often slow to respond when notified of infringement. This is frustrating for authors, who often have competing, original works in the Kindle Store. Those works are being undercut by cheaper knockoffs and Amazon is doing little to stop it.

To make matters worse, in January of this year, Amazon introduced a new tool to check and block ebooks for grammar and spelling errors, but not for plagiarism. While automated plagiarism detection won’t stop all forms of Kindle plagiarism, it’s a basic step that will prevent the most egregious infringements. Yet, after 7 years of negative headlines, Amazon hasn’t taken that step.

Once again, Amazon, protected by the DMCA, has decided to be as hands off as it can be. In this case, however, it means countless plagiarized and infringing books being sold in their bookstore.

Problems with AWS

Besides selling ebooks and physical goods, Amazon is also one of the largest hosting providers. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a popular platform and is used for hosting everything from small sites to major web services.

In the past, Amazon has agreed to handle DMCA notices sent to it over content on AWS. In 2012, the company agreed to handle copyright infringement claims against Pinterest, one of AWS’ larger clients.

I wrote in 2012 about AWS’ obstructionism when it comes to DMCA notices. Fortunately, things have gotten somewhat better, with Amazon accepting emailed notices. On the down side, the time until action is taken can take well over 2 weeks.

Fortunately, most of the time content is hosted on AWS it is through a middle customer such as Wix or Pinterest. In those cases, a filer can approach the customer for quicker results.

However, when a notice has to be sent to AWS, in my experience, be prepared to wait.  I routinely see waiting times longer than a week, sometimes longer than two weeks, to see any action infringing material.

While AWS’ copyright problems aren’t as severe as other areas of Amazon, they are still far behind the curve when it comes to response time. These issues show that the problems Amazon has aren’t just isolated to the store or the Kindle, but endemic through the entire company and it’s an issue that’s going to have to be addressed company-wide.

Fixing the Issue

Unfortunately for Amazon, fixing a problem on this scale is not easy. It’s clear that these issues are systemic through Amazon and major adjustments are needed.

To that end though, I have a few suggestions that can help:

  1. Create a Copyright Transparency Report: While Amazon has released some transparency reports, the’ve never addressed copyright. Google, Twitter, WordPress.com and many more all have transparency reports that include copyright notices. These, if done right, are for the protection of both users and filers as it says how many notices you received, how many you acted on and other data. One addition that would be particularly useful for Amazon is the average response time. This would tell users how long before Amazon accepts/rejects a notice under normal circumstances.
  2. Improve Communications: Slow responses, no responses and poor responses are among the biggest complaints by creators who have their work stolen on Amazon. Amazon needs to improve communications. As long as amazon takes several days or weeks to remove straightforward infringements, relations are not going to improve.
  3. Policies to Discourage Infringement: One of the reasons Amazon is a haven for infringers is that there is little penalty if they are caught. Infringers can keep the money they already made and there’s nothing stopping them from signing up again under a new account if Amazon cuts off the old one. YouTube recently made adjustments to ContentID that hold disputed funds in escrow pending an investigation. Amazon could adopt something similar. But as long as they financially incentivize infringement, it’s not going to go away.

My impression of the situation is that Amazon’s abuse team is doing the best that they can. They are just overwhelmed by the problem.

Amazon, as a company, is legendary for it’s razor-thin profit margins. The company keeps its overhead as tight as possible and, unfortunately, that seems to apply to abuse and copyright issues as well.

This is an area where that mentality does a great disservice to Amazon, creators and buyers alike.

Real improvement is going to take both time and money, but Amazon has shown that this is not an area it’s willing to invest either in.

Bottom Line

The real danger for Amazon here is what’s happened to eBay over the years.

Constant stories of counterfeits and fakes have harmed trust in the site. Traffic to eBay has stalled and sellers on the site have begun to defect, appropriately enough, to Amazon. While the intellectual property angle is just part of the eBay story, it can’t help that it’s earned a reputation for scams and knockoffs.

For eBay though, this is especially frustrating. It’s Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) program has been combatting copyright and trademark-infringing goods on the site for over a decade.

And here lies Amazon’s challenge. It has to do better than eBay has. Unfortunately, Amazon has only placed minimal effort into its anti-infringement efforts.  Meanwhile, eBay launched and promoted unique programs to stop infringement over 10 years ago.

There’s no easy answers here. But as Amazon moves to rely more and more on third-party sellers, doing nothing is clearly no longer an option.

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