The Why and How of E-Book Piracy by Arline Chase

Preface:  The other day a Google alert informed me that my first novel, Lust for Danger, was mentioned on a site called  I clicked through to discover that they were offering my novel as a free download.  I immediately emailed my Indie Publisher, Write Words Inc., to notify them of this issue.  Within a couple of days they’d managed to get the site to take my book down.  Honestly, I never thought this would happen to me.  But it did.  Arline Chase – owner of Write Words, Inc. – will explain why, and how, pirates steal our titles.  

Without further ado, here is industry veteran Arline Chase:

I can’t speak to how pirates get hold of every title, but I can mention some of the ways they are able to “find” material to give away and why they do it.

Some publishers, not me, but some, put the PDF up at Bowker’s Books in Print when they register the ISBN. As a protection to our authors, Write Words does not send the whole PDF there, or to Google’s “search inside the book” or anywhere else except sales sites where we actively participate. Bowker’s security is good, but no Internet Security is infallible.

Authors get tons of spam all the time. One ploy is to offer “free advertising” to authors by e-mail and ask them for one free copy to use for promotional purposes. If the author sends them ONE PDF book file by e-mail attachment, they can then give it away hundreds of times and they can claim to have your permission to do so as it was sent willingly. I don’t know that this is how they got your book, but it DOES happen. A Lot. You would also get lots more “offers” from them to buy advertising on line.

Now all our authors get PDF copies of their books and so do authors with most other publishing companies, and they are then free to use them for promotional purposes, send them out for review copies and so on. That’s what they are for. “Free Advertising” sounds like a great deal to most authors, who are trying to get the word out any way they can, and they do have copies to give away…soooooo…when someone comes along asking for ONE free promotional copy, most of us will bite. But One Copy can be duplicated electronically HUNDREDS of times….

There are also e-book “trading” sites where people who have purchased titles can “swap” their previously purchased copy for someone else’s “used” book. It doesn’t occur to them that there is no such thing as “recycling” a used e-book. The book is copyrighted material. Giving it away is illegal as you still have your original copy. MANY people will argue that they have the right to Sell Used E-Books the same as paper. NOT the same thing at all! Making a copy to SWAP is just as illegal as copying a Movie, or Musical recording. It is a violation of the U.S. Copyright act and a Federal Offense, according to the FBI.

Bottom line: You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. That works fine with paper books. If I trade a book with you, we each have one book. But if we swap an electronic book, both of us will end up with Two Book Files. And either of us can make hundreds more copies. It’s just not fair.

I can’t say I’ve never made a cassette copy of a musical CD. I do it to hack around in my car with, so the original will not be lost or discarded by mistake when I’m cleaning out the trash. But I wouldn’t do it to SELL a copy. When you “swap” a title at a “used book” site, they are going to use it to MAKE MONEY. There is no other reason for those pirate sites to exist.

Such sites DO give the books away, but Ask You to fill out a “registration” form, to be eligible to “join” the site. It will say sign in, or Join Our Site, or something, but what they want is Your Information. Once they have it, they can send spam to your e-mail address, Pfish your addressbook , and innundate you with all sorts of Trojans and other e-nuisances by e-mail.

Then they sell all the e-mail addresses in your computer to people who want to advertise things and people who want to send out spam. This is HOW folks get those fake messages from you that says you’re in England and had your passport and wallet stolen and will they just wire you some money to help you get home? Because you’re desperate. You’d be surprised how many people fall for this one as the message is sent to people whose names are in their addressbook. The message looks like it comes from You and you are Someone they Know, so it looks legitimate. If someone wires them money, they don’t have to be in England to collect, either. They can go to any Western Union, worldwide, claim to be you, and pick up a nice piece of change.

It’s also how people receive viruses and Trojans and software that tracks everything they buy, from THEIR e-mail address. It looks as if YOU sent it. And anyone who reports the spam, reports it under YOUR name as the Sender, Not the Real Culprit. Because they can easily type your name in the “reply to” blank and it looks exactly as if it came from YOU.

Some of those “sign in” registrations ask for your Credit Card info, too. Especially the ones who give books away and sell other goods…and if you fill in the CC info, they then can steal your identity pretty easily. They can order goods or get cash advances sent to a different address “as a gift,” but give your CC number, telephone and home address and you will be hip deep in unauthorized charges that look just like you made them.

BAD things can happen through this seemingly “free book fun” site.

E-book piracy isn’t about the books, anyway. It’s about money. Many authors shrug it off, saying, well, at least maybe some new fans will find me and look for my other books. And that can happen. But if you see your book being given away, call it to the attention of your publisher. Report the abuse everywhere you can.

Because however it happened, it’s Not Free Advertising. It’s costing you sales and every copy they give away, is one copy you might have collected royalties on.

*     *     *     *     *

Arline Chase became a publisher at Write Words, Inc. on Jan. 1, 2000. She is an award-winning author, journalist, teacher, and mentor to authors all over the world. Arline is a long-time member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and has led workshops at their conferences as well as workshops and panels at Malice Domestic and other writers conferences. She is a member of the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of American and the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association.

A version of this post appeared on her blog at Write Words/Arline Chase on January 10, 2012.


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13 thoughts on “The Why and How of E-Book Piracy by Arline Chase”

  1. Excellent info, Arline. Are the authors who offer their books for free also unwittingly increasing their risk of piracy?

    After all, there is no need to solicit a free copy if one is there for the taking.

  2. Wow! I didn't have a clue! This is an article every author…actually, everyone should read. Thank you, Arline. P.s. my computer is coming home today after being gone a good 2 weeks to be wiped clean of viruses. But the e-book piracy is even more scary! Stephanie

  3. Great article, but it covers just a minuscule portion of how people get the books to be posted on these sharing sites. The biggest source for ebooks is Amazon anf B&N. A lot of the books don't have copy protection and for the ones that do, it can be easily removed. Someone just has to buy one copy and pass it on to the pirates for it to get into circulation. For books not available as ebooks (mainly non-fiction, comics, graphic novels, etc), there are dedicated groups who will scan them, OCR them, proofread them and put them up.

    So, there is no way to stop piracy in the digital world (atleast I can't think of any). For the bestsellers, there will always be copies available, if one knows where to look.

    A large part of the pirated books don't exist on the web at all as they are traded using P2P networks. There is just no way files can be removed from there, other than shutting down the servers by getting a court order, as was done with Napster or piratebay. But when one of these goes down there are many more ready to replace them.

    I know it all sounds pretty glum, but it is so.

    One thing I wanted to point out with the article. The scenario painted here happens with an extremely small number of file sharing sites. Most of them such as rapidshare, megaupload and 4shared are legitimate businesses.

  4. Thanks for all the comments! Sometimes we need to give out free copies — to people who are doing reviews and so on. We just need to be careful to whom we give them.

    Also, as someone pointed out, any customer who has bought a copy, can put it up on a swap site and many see nothing wrong with this. It IS wrong, but most don't even think about it. They think, "Hey I can trade a book I've read for one I haven't," whenever they see a swap site.

    There is NO WAY to stop pirates, but a quick letter from the publisher to resulted in getting the book removed. Despite possible pending legislation, it's unlikely that anything will stop them.

    Truly, I think the best thing we can do is not to participate and to complain whenever we find sites giving away our work.

  5. Good post Arline.

    Another thing that online authors should be aware of is to NOT put their PDF books online without zipping them up.

    If you place your book on the internet as a PDF file Google can index it. There are things you can do to protect your PDF file but the best option is to place it on the web as a zipped file. Google doesn't index zipped files — yet.

    This isn't complete protection but it can help.

  6. Arline,

    Thanks for the info. How is this different than the "lending enabled" on Amazon? I wanted to disable it but because of the low price of my book it says I cannot.

    I have copyrights on both the first book and the second ms. As a self-published author I thought this would add some protection, but maybe not.

    Now I'm paranoid. A local book club wanted free books, "just one copy" she said. I thought she was just cheap, but maybe there is more to it.

  7. You can easily and legally buy software that will convert Kindle Books, Nook Books, etc., into pdf format, and you can buy software that removes the DRM Protection on a lot of e-books. So if your ebook is commercially available, it can be converted to a pdf by anyone. The best thing to do is simply not support those who do this which means don't download unauthorized e-books. If no one downloaded these bootlegs, people would stop making them available. But unfortunately there is no need for trickery to get an ebook into pdf- the software can be found by a simple Google search. I'm hoping that the people who sell this software are lying, and that in fact they can't convert a Kindle to PDF in under a minute, but I am sure they can. For my job I was forwarded some files in lotus, I couldn't open them and did a quick search to see if there were products that can transfer lwp to doc, and what I found was a lot of ads for software that could supposedly transfer documents from one format to another, even if there is copyright protection in place.

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