Amazon’s Coronavirus Plagiarism Problem

When we thought Amazon's plagiarism problem couldn't get worse...

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Last month, as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to reach U.S. shores and forcing the cancellation of big events, CNBC published a report about how Amazon was being overrun by a deluge of plagiarized books on the topic.

According to the report, whole books were cobbled together from publicly-available web pages and resources including news articles, cleaning guides and other reports. One such book was written by a “Richard J. Baily”, a likely pseudonym for the real author, and featured content slapped together, without attribution, from multiple sources.

Though that book has been removed, the report states that others remained.

In their response, Amazon discussed how they maintain “content guidelines for the books it sells, and we continue to evaluate our catalog, listening to customer feedback.” They also laid out how they require authors to provide accurate information about their books and they remove works that violate their terms of service.

However, as Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader pointed out, these scams have been going on for years and Amazon, despite having the capability of weeding out at least the worst of the bad actors, has done nothing.

But with the Coronavirus outbreak, the company’s practices have gone from being harmful to authors to being dangerous to the public. Since the recent pandemic is serving as a wake up call in many ways, maybe it can also serve as a wakeup call for Amazon to do something about its plagiarism problem.

A Long, Long History

Amazon Kindle

We’ve been talking about Amazon’s troubled history with plagiarized and copyright-infringing books for a very long time.

In 2009, nearly eleven years ago now, we discussed how Amazon let anyone sell your content. In 2012, Amazon drew controversy over plagiarized erotica. Four years later, in 2016 we looked at the growing copyright problems Amazon is facing, both inside and outside its Kindle store. Finally, in 2019, we told Amazon how they could actually fix the problems they’re having.

That’s a decade of discussion and highlighting Amazon’s bad practices with no major changes on Amazon’s part. Amazon is fully aware that its Kindle store makes it easy for fake authors, plagiarists and scammers to thrive. They also know that some simple checks could mitigate the issue significantly.

However, as the recent COVID-19 plagiarism debacle has shown, Amazon still isn’t doing those checks. Any plagiarism check worth its salt would have found such a complete plagiarism from publicly-available sources, especially since at least some of those sources were older.

But, as we discussed in June 2019, Amazon isn’t likely to do much to fix the problem. It’s not going to spend money on technology and staff to run it so that it can have fewer books to sell. There’s no motivation for the company to take steps here, especially since they are legally protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) when it comes to copyright.

In short, Amazon could, theoretically, address the problem relatively easily but has no motivation to do so. Now, however, it isn’t just hurting other authors, it’s putting the public at risk.

Amazon: It’s Time to Do Better

To be clear, no one believes Amazon can stop 100% of all plagiarists or bad actors when it comes to their Kindle store. That is unreasonable. However, rather than stopping most or even a small percentage, the book giant has decided to stop none.

Fake authors, plagiarized books, scam content, it’s all too easy to upload.

Even if Amazon has tightened its policies regarding coronavirus books, it clearly messed up at the start of the outbreak, the time where it was most important. Without a good policy 365 days per year, they will be woefully unprepared for the next big public health/safety crisis.

This is not a problem that is going away. When you design and build a system for the public to use, you have to assume that bad actors WILL try to exploit it and find ways to mitigate that. No system will be perfect, but even a small reduction would remove the worst actors and improve things drastically.

In light of current events, Amazon is making a large number of changes to how it operates to increase safety. One of those changes should be to improve its vetting process for Kindle works because, as this has shown, it is a safety issue.

We can’t just think about the abuse of the Kindle store as being a danger to authors. It’s a danger to everyone.

Bottom Line

I publish this knowing that it is futile. Amazon has ignored these issues for more than a decade and has no motivation to change. The new EU copyright regulations may change things some, but it’s unlikely that the filters the law requires would stop the kind of infringement CNBC reported on.

There’s just no reason to think that things will change now. Even with the problem being shown to a potential public health problem, even with it being shown to support the worst kind of scammers and even with it hurting their own reputation.

If Amazon hasn’t changed before now, why would it change because of this? Everything that CNBC and others reported on was completely predictable but nothing was done.

All of this, or at least the worst of this, could have been easily avoided. Amazon deserves to be blamed for its lack of action in this area and needs to be held accountable for the predictable and preventable abuse of its platform.

Sadly, we all know it never will.

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