Of Pirates and Plagiarism

Of Pirates and Plagiarism

Last week a scandal hit the world of romance writers, and I wanted to talk about it here because of how it affects all authors.

The scandal started when the well-known romance author Courtney Milan received an email from a fan. The fan told her that a book she was currently reading, allegedly written by a Brazilian author named Cristiane Serruya, had passages in it that seemed to come directly from one of Milan’s own books.

Milan investigated and found that the fan was right. There were not just sentences or paragraphs, but entire passages from Milan’s book included in Serruya’s. Milan notified the writing world  about what was happening via her blog and soon, other fans found what looked like more instances of plagiarism in Serruya’s book. Only now it wasn’t just Milan being plagiarized—it was dozens of other authors and lots of other books. In fact, as of this writing the list includes thirty nine different authors and fifty one different books. And the list keeps growing.

Serruya, for her part, at first protested and said that the plagiarism was not her fault, then disappeared off of all social media. Who knows what the ending of this story will be? But if the charges of plagiarism are true, it is horrifying. And it is, sadly, all too common.

In this digital age it is all too easy to steal words and ideas and pass them off as your own, and many independent authors (including me) have had to deal with plagiarism or pirating, or both. But what do these two words mean?

Plagiarism happens when somebody incorporates phrases, paragraphs, or perhaps even entire pages from someone else’s work into their own work and uses them without crediting the original source. It doesn’t have to be copying exactly word for word. It’s still plagiarism even if the plagiarist changes a few words here or there. Sometimes it happens accidentally, as in this instance with Helen Keller, but other times it is deliberate and purposeful.

Piracy is a much more blatant act. It occurs when somebody takes an entire work from another author, claims it as their own, and either sells it or gives it away. It is always deliberate. Pirates sometimes take stories that they find posted on fan fiction sites (as happened to me in 2015). Other times they hack into files that they find stored online and download them. They are not above buying a single copy of a paperback and scanning it in manually, page by page, until they have the entire text. Then they add a new cover and a new author name and voila! They have a new book. Pirates are determined and creative, and most of the time, they get away with it.

What is an author to do? We authors pour our hearts and souls into our stories. We agonize over every conceivable detail of what we write, from the structure of the overall story right down to whether to use a comma or a semicolon. We spend months, sometimes years, writing, editing and proofreading, and then we send our story out into the world to see what it can do. To have a story taken away from us either by plagiarism or piracy is an intensely personal violation.

It can also be a terribly expensive violation. If an author tries to fight back, the “fake” author may just take down their books and disappear, but they almost certainly won’t give back the money they already earned. Even worse, the pirate or plagiarizer may claim that they wrote the story first! Then the author has to prove when and how they first wrote and published the story. The story may end up in legal limbo for years, and during that time the author is not earning any money from it. Add in the money spent on legal fees, etc., and the time the author could have spent developing another project. It’s enough to make an author want to quit writing altogether, and some authors have.

There are a few ways for readers to fight back against piracy and plagiarism.

First, be aware of how big the problem is. Statistics on plagiarism are hard to come by, but many authors say the problem has gotten worse in recent years. Some people blame the way that Amazon ranks its authors, rewarding those who publish more books in a short time. Others say it’s also a problem on other platforms like Google Play and Kobo. Regardless of the reason, we know plagiarism is a serious issue. As for piracy, consider this shocking statistic: in 2017 alone, over 31 million books were illegally downloaded, at a cost of $315,000,000!

Secondly, be wary of any site that offers “free” downloads of a popular book. A legitimate author is much more likely to offer a free book through an established channel like Amazon or Smashwords. Many times a download link on an unfamiliar page is actually a link to a virus. If you’re not sure if the link is legitimate or not, contact the author first.

Third, be willing to speak up! Plagiarism and piracy are almost always found first by an alert reader who notices what’s going on. There are so many books out there that it simply isn’t possible for an author to check all of them, even with software to help.  But when a reader notifies an author that they’ve found something fishy, the author can investigate and then start fighting back by sending take down notices, notifying the distributor, and alerting other authors so they can check for infringements of their own work.

This topic is way too detailed to cover fully in just one post, so I’ve included some links below for further reading. One is the original post by Courtney Milan and another is by Nora Roberts, who was allegedly also plagiarized by Serruya.. There are also some other pages that talk about plagiarism and piracy. I’m interested in hearing what all of you think of this whole issue!

Courtney Milan’s announcement

Nora Roberts responds

Plagiarism In The Age of Self Publishing

Statistics on book piracy 

29 Responses to Of Pirates and Plagiarism

  1. I knew that this was a terrible issue but still didn’t realize the scope of how many sites there were that offered the books for “free.” It’s disgraceful that there are so many people seeking to profit off of others’ work. One of the things I look at before I make a purchase on Amazon is the reviews and I am also more likely to buy if they have other works as well that have lots of reviews.

  2. I don’t know if any of my books have been plagiarized, but they have been pirated. That’s why I hired Blasty.co at $155.00 per year to track down the pirates and do the takedown orders. Probably 3,000 sites have been found with my unauthorized books on them…for free including unauthorized use of the covers and blurb in videos on YouTube.com. Sadly though, there is no way to really stop them. Greedy people will always find a way around anything put in their way to deter them.

    • Wow, Gianna, I had no idea!!!!! I can’t believe you have to pay that much money per year to defend something that is indisputably yours!!! In your experience do the pirates usually just disappear, or have any of them challenged your ownership?

      • I don’t know of any that have challenged my ownership except Amazon. They demanded proof of copyright eleven times, eight of them in the middle of a promo as I was trying to get my books republished after splitting with my publisher. Effectively killed the promo. Blasty hasn’t been able to get all of my books pulled off these sites but have probably about a 95% success rate. The pirates don’t care because we can’t sue them. Their websites are in other countries. So they will continue on stealing anything they can lay their hands on. 🙁

  3. We’ve had some of our books appear on ‘free’ download sites. We contacted google, I think, and told them the sites were bad. It was a while ago, so I’m not totally sure I recall the details right. We’ve also had someone lift one of our covers and put it on a different book, with our names still on it. The book they put it on was free, so I’m not even sure what they were getting out of it, but we told Amazon and they took it down. Honestly, I don’t feel like authors have much recourse against this sort of thing. Our best defense is, as you said, loyal fans 🙂

    • One thing I forgot to add to this rather involved post is that Courtney Milan is an attorney who happens to specialize in intellectual property law. She clerked for the supreme court and has taught intellectual property at the law school level. Serruya simply could not have picked a worse target. Milan, Roberts, and the other authors who know they were plagiarized are in a legal huddle right now, plotting strategy. I’m glad that authors with the means to protect themselves are taking steps to do so as strongly as possible.

  4. Elaine I love this post and feel so much empathy for those authors who have been plagiarized. Thanks for bringing attention to the problem here at AUAU.

    • Thanks Jennifer. I honestly wasn’t sure if I should write about it here, because this is such a positive and upbeat site. But I think it’s important for readers to know what a huge problem this is. After all, they are also victims of these practices when they buy a product that ends up being fake and inferior. They are stolen from just as much as authors are.

  5. This is scandalous!! There should be more protection for authors. I would never download any book unless I was sure it was the real thing. I always stick to the sites I know.

  6. I remember reading that Georgette Heyer spent a LOT of time catching and prosecuting plagiarism of her Regency Romances. For example, she made up “Cheltenham tragedies” as slang for sob stories, and many other authors used it, being too lazy or inexperienced to do their own Regency slang research (thank gawd for the internet!!). It is a sign of respect, perhaps, to copy Mrs. Heyer, but a sign of laziness and contempt also. IMHO.

  7. Part of the problem is that the theft of intellectual property is not considered as serious as the theft of physical property. If such theft came with fines (not just damages after a civil suit) and imprisonment (even if it’s only for a month or two) there might be less theft.

    • That would probably slow down the plagiarists. It’s my understanding that most pirates are in countries outside the United States, so there is almost no protection against them. Authors have to rely on the process of notifying Amazon or whoever that a particular title is pirated, and hope the pirate doesn’t fight back.

  8. Wow! That sounds like a big issue! I guess one has to be careful about all these things and research books before you buy to be sure all is on the up and up! How could someone do that? How awful.

    • It’s a much bigger problem than what I covered in just this post. I learned a lot doing the research for it. For example, I found that some authors take a book they’ve already written and published, change a few character names and the cover, stick a new pen name on the front, and sell it again as a totally new book!!!!!! It’s absolutely infuriating to know that such disreputable people make it harder for the rest of us to do what we love.

  9. Once when I was still teaching a parent set up a conference about a paper that was plagiarized by her son. This was for an Advanced Placement class. The parent was not upset with her child, nor, I suppose, with me. She just wanted to know how I managed to catch him so he would not get caught again in the future.

  10. It amazes me that the culprit in this fiasco was not caught for years and even was considered a USA Best-Selling Author, especially in light of the fact that I had to prove to Amazon that my “Where There’s a Fitzwilliam Darcy…” print copy was not a plagiarized version of Regina Jeffers’s eBook by the same name. Some of you might recall that it took me more than two weeks to convince Amazon (after I emailed Bezos directly) that I was the author of both. My print copy of Christmas at Pemberley is still blocked for the same reason. Oh, if Amazon had been so diligent previously!!!!

    • Oh, Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. I like Amazon. I’m Amazon exclusive. They’ve been good to me. Yet there are a number of top authors out there who blame Amazon, in part, for the plagiarism problem, because Amazon ranks authors more highly if they produce more books in a year. That puts pressure on authors to generate copy quickly. I wish Amazon would take frequency of publication out of their algorithm. Just because an author writes quickly doesn’t mean they write well. I also wish Amazon would put a lifetime publishing ban on anyone who is convicted of plagiarism or piracy.

        • That makes sense. They would naturally want to promote authors who are loyal to them. But at some point they should sit back and realize the pressure an author is under to generate more and more books. It’s created a host of problems.

    • Regina, what Amazon has done to you is RIDICULOUS. Just beyond words. I’m sure you’d prefer not to deal with them if possible but Amazon controls 85% of the book market in this country, so we are all tied to it.

  11. OMG! This is horrible. I read the Nora Roberts link and was shocked and dismayed at what she revealed. I didn’t know it was this bad. On GoodReads I have seen several instances/alerts of this ugly practice. Like Roberts’ article indicated, it was a reader that caught the similarities between the books. I had even bought one of the books. I was so upset that I deleted it from my device. I refused to read it. I was furious that my money had gone to a thief and not to the proper author. In one instance, they had the audacity to keep the same title and even the same font and just tweaked the cover a bit. Many authors are pulling their stories from Fan-Fiction sites due to this problem. I know many authors and know how hard they work. It is a shame. Thank you for this post.

    • I am so sorry you had that experience, J.W.

      It always seems to be the readers, God bless them, who find and report these things. I am grateful for them. It was a reader on FF who discovered the pirated version of my book, One False Step, and emailed me immediately. I was posting the story as a WIP and only had about half of it up on the site. The pirate had the nerve to call their version of it volume one, meaning that they were fully planning on stealing and publishing the rest of the story when I finished it!

      Since then I am much more careful about how I post stories on FF. I still want to give my readers free stories but I only leave the completed tale up for a very short time. Then I have readers who become angry with me for not leaving it all up indefinitely. sigh They don’t understand.

      I am now writing a North and South variation, Margaret of Milton, but I will only post it as a WIP on fan fiction sites with certain controls in place. Anyone who’s interested can register at darcyandlizzy.com to read it.

  12. It is a shame people keep doing this. I experienced it at University. Some seem to think “cheating” is not that bad, everyone cheated at school (and most of the time they weren’t caught)… they simply go on.
    Sadly, piracy and plagiarism work against good, relaxed relationships between (for example) authors and readers: Wherever you look, people get wary because they want to protect their intellectual property. Results are less free stories, less shared WIP, dearer books or less books because authors cannot afford the financial loss or they lose interest in publishing at all.
    And all this for some finanial or personal gain.

    • You’re right, Anja, everybody loses. The writers lose and the readers lose. And the sad thing is, even the plagiarizers lose something. They lose the discipline and effort it takes to become a talented writer themselves. I wonder how successful they would be publishing their own books if they actually tried doing it the right way. Instead, they know all the compliments they receive about their writing actually go to another person.

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