Avast! Piracy and the Self-Publisher

by | Apr 6, 2016

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.

Self-Published eBooks

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.[1]
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. [2] 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.

Scam Sites

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.

[1] 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!

[2] 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.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Eric J. Gates

    I have had an on-going battle with pirated copies of all of my books for some time. I did notice a pattern however. The books that showed up far more often as pirated copies were always the ones that had been on Smashwords. I no longer use this service and the last novel I published which I did not release on Smashwords,is the one that has been least pirated of all. Draw your own conclusions.

    As for SOLUTIONS: the hasle to get a take down notice actioned at a pirate site seems to work against authors. I’ve found a MUCH MORE EFFICIENT system – have that site’s pirated page deleted from Google (people can’t find the pirated copy = no illegal downloads). The FREE service I use for this is awesome and highly recommended: BLASTY https://www.blasty.co/invitation/6s4WE4Be Try it out – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

  2. Marilynn Byerly

    If you have a career as successful as Gaiman’s with all your books available in paper at every bookstore, movie deals, etc., then maybe piracy won’t hurt you. The rest of us are screwed because piracy destroys profit. And, no, a pirated book won’t get you more reviews or sales unless it’s on the pirate sites where a “fan” of your books will ask someone to upload the next book so they can steal that, too.

    If you want to learn more about how to deal with ebook pirates, join [email protected] . Authors band together to share news of pirate sites, show how to handle various legal issues, and bombard sites and advertisers with takedowns or angry letters about supporting piracy.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I suspect it hurts successful, popular authors far worse. I’ve actually seen pirated versions of Stephen King’s books, and Sara Gruen’s books. Of all the indie authors I’ve met, the only ebook “piracy” going on is those scam sites – and the only risk there is to readers’ credit cards, if they’re feeling that trusting (or desperate to read a book for free). Personally, I think the price of any book I want to read is far cheaper than the cost of identity theft.

  3. Jane Gray

    Something you failed to mention is that the pirates might provide you a small service, ratings and/or reviews. Not important after the first 50-100, but until that point pretty crucial.

  4. paula cappa

    I just saw my book pirated on a site call “Ebook Free Download 1860” at TCIWeekends.com. Other contemporary fiction there too. I’ve contacted the Google Copyright Infringement Reporting Tool. Now what?!

    • David Kudler

      Hey, Paula!

      Now you wait. If Google doesn’t contact you, check again in a couple of days. If the link is still there, submit the link again. Rinse. Repeat.

      BTW, I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure that the TCIWeekends site is a scam. When Google shows you a link to a [DOC] file — not an HTML or PHP file — on a sketchy site, there’s a good chance that the site is trying to get you to open the file in Word so that the macros (scripts) that are part of the file can load viruses or take control of your computer.

      Question for everyone: Has anyone actually downloaded an ebook from TCIWeekends.com?

      • Holly Jahangiri

        Never heard of it. My bet? Scam.

        Not worth exposing my credit card number to confirm that, but – scam. Has to be.

  5. Brian

    I generally don’t worry about it. But recently I found copies of my audio books on YouTube. Some have well over 50,000 views. That’s serious money lost. I mention it as a public service. If you have audio books you should do a search on YouTube.

    • David Kudler


      Two thoughts that might take some of the sting away:

      1.) Your book has just been exposed to a lot of people — you may have gotten ebook and print sales out of it

      2.) Folks who listen/read for free are unlikely to ever want to pay. Of those who do, a certain percentage will actually track down your product and go pay for it if they liked it — or may buy the next one. So your actual money lost is almost certainly nowhere near LISTENS * (MSRP*40%).

      Here’s an article about SFF author Neil Gaiman on the subject: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110211/00384413053/how-neil-gaiman-went-fearing-piracy-to-believing-its-incredibly-good-thing.shtml

    • Samus

      I’m pretty sure YouTube counts views even if the person didn’t sit and listen to the video in its entirety, so I really don’t think you can say that 50,000 views equals 50,000 lost sales. I’ve looked for audiobooks a few times on YouTube, and it’s generally because I’m just looking for a better sample than the one Audible provides (like, maybe I’ve already read the book and I want to know if the narrator does a good job with my favorite character). However, when I’ve gone looking those few times, I didn’t see many actual full audiobooks on there. I’d imagine that if you informed YouTube of the problem, they’d take the video down.

  6. Michael N. Marcus

    Although copyright infringement is a crime in the USA (“Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to FIVE YEARS IN FEDERAL PRISON and a $250,000 fine”), don’t expect the FBI to help you.

    My intellectual property has been stolen more than 100 times (I stopped counting). I asked the FBI for help a few times and was told to hire a lawyer and file a civil suit. The Feds are too busy to enforce Federal law.

  7. gipsika

    Yoho! (and a bottle of rum.) Indeed that was my experience too when I found one of my titles “shared” everywhere. It hasn’t been shared. It is only being used as a lure. What concerns me more is that ebay, where I was selling some of my books, has closed my account (without removing my books) and is unwilling to reopen it. Now that I’d call genuine piracy, shockingly by a large retailer.

  8. HJ

    I left Scribd when they began offering Smashwords titles as part of a membership package – it was an opt-out for authors, not an opt-in, and that was unconscionable.

    PlagiarismToday had a good article on the scam sites: https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2016/01/25/the-problem-with-ebook-piracy-spam/ They explained that they look legit because they simply scrape covers and database info from Amazon, but that they don’t actually have a pirated copy of the books. (Pass that metaphoric rum – I wasn’t worried, but try convincing new-to-Internet authors that their new release wasn’t so hot it was automatically grabbed up by the latest “Netflix for Books” site out there. Or, that if it was, whoever was dumb enough to provide their credit card and personal particulars to get unlimited free copies of a book you’re not giving away for free will, in fact, get their karmic just desserts.)

    Of course, I feel that way about visiting one of the sites you mention for checking trustworthiness, but you remember “He who must not be named” from the Harry Potter books? Remember “Beetlejuice”? I won’t risk saying it.

  9. Thomas P. Buehner

    Thanks, David, for the excellent research of the topic and the easily understandable article. Both from m viewpoint as a book publisher and an author, I can only subscribe to your well-thought words.

    Tim O’Reilly, a well-known and successful publisher and copyright blogger, said “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”.

  10. Karl Drinkwater

    I like the OpenBooks approach https://openbooks.com/ – no DRM, and let the users choose how much to pay. Trusting customers to act responsibly often creates a good relationship and encourages a return on that trust.

    • David Kudler

      Agreed — though most retailers won’t subscribe to that particular approach! (Smashwords has a pay-what-you-can feature, for what it’s worth.)

      In any case, your point is well-taken: offering trust encourages trust and builds relationships.

  11. Karl Drinkwater

    This is sensible and useful advice which goes a long way to counter-acting unnecessary panic, so thank you!

    I make my living as an author but always release DRM-free, since DRM has caused me so many problems as a consumer (in films, books, and games). It only ever penalises legitimate customers. The best thing is to treat your custoemrs well, and not worry about the ones who wouldn’t pay anyway. Who knows, they might give you a good review instead – that’s worth more than the cost of a book.

    • David Kudler

      Good point, Karl!

      I’ve been giving away hundreds of copies of my soon-to-be-published novel Risuko in exchange for reviews; I’ve got 85 up on Goodreads and another five on Amazon (though how that happened, I’m not sure, since they don’t usually allow reviews on pre-sales). We’ll see how much those are worth!

  12. Bruce Fottler

    Good article, but I think something important was left out. In addition to scams, some of these sites want to infect your computer with malware. Thus, I think that attempting to download any file to verify authenticity is extremely risky advice.

    • David Kudler

      Excellent point. There are precautions that you can take to avoid some of the risk — having up-to-date anti-virus software, working from a non-administrative account (which you should do anyway), etc.

      But the risk is still there.

  13. Fiona Ingram

    Thanks for the tip. Interestingly, I received a Google Alert on one of my animal rescue books, appearing on The Daily Motion, sort of a video ad with my title and others. I went on to two sites where it was supposedly available for free. The sites are Playster and Unlimited Ebooks. I advised The Daily Motion of copyright infringement and they took the video down right away and replied in email to me. Unlimited Ebooks had a place to advise of copyright problems, and I sent them an email. Playster wants people to join using Facebook or Google + even to send a query, but I wasn’t keen on going further. I’ll see what happens now. However, I am relieved that most of these so called freebies are just scams with no freebie in sight.



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