I hear from a lot of authors — traditionally and self-published — who are panicked to find their work being stolen. “I just did a Google search,” they’ll moan, “and found a site that’s giving my book away!”
I take a deep breath, pour myself some (metaphoric) rum, and prepare to repel pirates — but mostly imagined ones.
It’s true: as long as there has been a commercial internet, there have been sites and apps that operated to “share” intellectual property illegally, to indulge in what is colorfully known as piracy.
Everyone remembers Napster: it was a peer-to-peer (P2P) app dedicated to sharing MP3 files across the internet back at the height of the so-called dot-com boom at the turn of the twenty-first century. The music industry did its best to shut Napster down by attacking its servers, its founder, and its users, and it did eventually force it out of business in 2001. But this didn’t stop P2P sharing; it simply moved the sharing on to other vectors — Limewire, BItTorrent, and many more.
However, a funny thing happened, also in 2001, that made music sharing less of an issue to the musicians and music companies: the launching of Apple’s iTunes (along with the iPod) made it easy actually to buy music through legitimate channels. Some folks still shared music online — but far more bought the music and downloaded it legitimately. iTunes became to music what Amazon has become for books: a way for even the smallest label to reach an audience and make some money. In some cases a lot of money.
So what does this mean to the self-publisher?
A couple of things:
1. There’s still piracy — including ebooks and PDFs of print books.
2. Most of the “piracy” sites you’ll find are actually scams.
There are “real” piracy sites (mostly torrent-sharing databases), but there’s not a whole lot you can do about them — they’re mostly operating out of countries where US and European intellectual property owners don’t have a whole lot of recourse (i.e., China, Russia, Vietnam, etc.).
What you CAN do is send Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notices to Google and Bing asking them to stop linking to your book on those sites. You’ll need to follow a very specific format and include information that proves that you are the owner of the intellectual property in question — and you’ll have to do it for every single link.
There are also file-sharing forums around the internet — most of them legitimate.
- MobileRead is one such site dedicated to sharing ebooks (as well as sharing information about ebooks — it’s a wonderful site).
- ScribD started out as one of these before becoming a subscription eretailer.
Most of these sites, however, are extremely careful about copyright infringement. MobileReads, for example, has a no-piracy policy that it takes very seriously.  Even if they’re less scrupulous, most forums will have a clearly marked link (often at the bottom of the page) to request a take-down of illegitimate material.
By the way, if you’re counting on digital rights management (DRM, aka encryption) to make sure that pirates can’t share your precious ebooks… Don’t bother. There isn’t a DRM scheme that can’t be broken — most of them within a minute or two. The “all knowledge should be free!” anti-IP crowd seem to take DRM as a challenge rather than a deterrent. I’m not sure that it doesn’t increase your likelihood of piracy. DRM is mostly effective at making sure that ebooks bought from one retailer can’t be read on the ereader app of another retailer.
So take a deep breath. Ask the search engines to take down links to the egregious pirates. If they’re not on Google, that will starve most of the traffic. It will take time, and the problem won’t go away after the first time — or the second, or the third, or…
If you’re finding pirated versions of your books online, you’ll have to go through the whole process at regular intervals. Set up Google Alerts that will warn you when new versions pop up. At Joseph Campbell Foundation, which I’ve been working with since 1999, we’ve taken to calling this Operation Whack-a-mole.
You can take some solace in the thought that your fans are showing enough interest to track down your book. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can use P2P sharing and file-sharing forums to distribute promotional freebies — free excerpts, prequel stories, etc. Share them far and wide and make sure that everyone knows that they’re shared with your okay. Include links and other promotional calls-to-action in the ebook to drive readers toward your site, where you can give them incentives to sign up for your email list by giving them — you guessed it — more freebies. You’ll turn these erstwhile pirates into fans by creating a relationship with them.
There are some incredibly successful authors doing just this, among them Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow. Guy Kawasaki launched his hit self-publishing book APE by giving away away thousands upon thousands of advance review copies.
I’ve been fighting this fight with the Joseph Campbell Foundation since the days of Napster. To be honest, the author is probably best served by making sure that the book is widely, easily available for sale – that seems to be the best defense against piracy. The easiest place for me to see this has been not with Joseph Campbell’s ebooks — we’ve had fairly little actual piracy of those — but with audio and video recordings of his lectures. When those were off the market in the mid-2000s (for reasons beyond our control) the digital “market” for free downloads of bootlegged digitized copies exploded. The minute we re-released the recordings commercially (and started adding new content), the number of hits for “legitimate” pirated copies decreased.
Not the fakes, though.
The huge majority of all “Download this ebook free!” sites are scams — not of the publisher, but of the less-than-honest erstwhile downloader. You give these sites your credit card (as well, perhaps as other personal info) and there’s no ebook, or you get forwarded to another site, which forwards you to another site, which….
My novel Risuko was up on a bunch of those sites — before I’d so much as uploaded a presale file to any of the retailers. There was no book to rip off yet, and yet it was “available.”
It’s amazing how much money some people will risk to get a $2.99 ebook for “free.”
Essentially, it’s the Nigerian Oil Scam using “free” ebooks (and games and videos and music, etc.) as the lure. The scam counts on the scammee knowing that they’re doing something dishonest and therefore taking chances they wouldn’t take on a legitimate site. The site requests a credit card number but assures you that it won’t be used. Then you find out that you not only can’t get the content you wanted to download, but now you can’t stop your credit card from getting charged — sometimes a few dollars a month (so you don’t notice), and sometimes thousands of dollars.
There are lots and lots and lots of these sites. They get added all of the time.
How do you confirm that you’ve found your book on one of these sites? First of all, try downloading the file. If the file downloads right away (and it isn’t the preview version that a lot of retailers offer — the first 10% or 20% of the book), then you might have a problem — see if there’s a DMCA take-down procedure. If you can’t find one, send them to the search engines.
If you have to fork over a credit card number, it’s almost certainly not a piracy site, just a piracy scam. When in doubt check:
(If you click any of these links you’ll see each site brings up information on a scam site called DonnaPlay. It probably goes without saying, but DON’T GO TO THAT SITE!)
You can try to send DMCA take-downs to the search engines, but again you’ll have to do that for every single link. And one of these scammers can create hundreds of URLs that seem to offer your book in a day. So save this for when you’ve got time and money (or the urgent need).
Now. Pour yourself some rum. Say Arrr! You’ve successfully repelled some pirates.
 Yes. People really will scan a copy of a popular book and share it with their friends. Doesn’t happen much if the ebook is available, though!
 The vast majority of ebooks shared on MobileReads are uploaded by the author or the publisher for promotional purpose, or are in the public domain.
Editor’s Note: For more information about what to do if you experience content theft, see this article by Helen Sedwick — A Step-by-Step Guide to Dealing with Content Theft.