Why Amazon’s Plagiarism Problem Is More Than A Public Relations Issue

Plagiarized editions for sale in Amazon’s Kindle store show how the company is still adapting to the world of original content creation. At the same time, the stolen books may also present a test of the retailer’s ability to rely on a widely used legal shield that protects content sites from being accused of copyright infringement.
Amazon’s plagiarism problem came to light again last week after Fast Company reported that many of the bestselling self-published “authors” in the Kindle store were actually copycats who uploaded other writers’ e-books under different titles. Using the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, the copycats are able to hijack the sales of the original authors by simply copying and reselling their works.
Spammy and stolen e-books — either plagiarized copies of copyrighted works by other authors, or books thrown together from “private label rights” (PLR) content, which can be bought very cheaply online and quickly formatted into multiple e-books — have long been a problem in the Kindle store. We don’t have data on how many of these titles are currently for sale or how widespread the problem is.
“We’ve found that the folks spreading PLR are also more likely to be plagiarists of real book content” as well, says Mark Coker, the CEO of e-book publishing platform Smashwords (a competitor of Amazon’s self-publishing platform). In many instances, Coker says, plagiarized and PLR content banned by Smashwords still appears in the Kindle and Nook stores. He says those stores don’t vet content as thoroughly as Smashwords does.
Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) provides an e-mail address that plagiarism victims can use to demand that an offending e-book be removed. In response to our questions on plagiarized content in the Kindle store, the company provided the following statement:

Since the launch of Kindle, we have worked steadily to build processes to detect and remove books that either violate copyright or don’t improve the customer experience. Over time, we’ve rejected or removed thousands of such offending titles, and we expect to keep improving our approach to protect the service we provide to both Kindle readers and authors/publishers.

Update: When we submitted a list of questions to Amazon via e-mail, we asked them if they use screening software to screen for unauthorized copies. Instead of responding to the individual questions, the company provided the above statement. An Amazon spokeswoman called me this morning, however, and told me that Amazon does employ screening software. However, the company would not specify the kind of software it uses; whether it is screening for PLR or plagiarized content; or any other details. Amazon does not, however, employ software to screen for unauthorized copies — which is perhaps surprising given that
Amazon would not elaborate on what software it is using or if it resembles the electronic anti-plagiarism tools are used by nearly every university and by publishers as well. This type of software works by comparing a newly submitted document against a database of existing texts and flagging submissions that contain a high degree of overlap.
Robert Creutz, an executive with anti-plagiarism service Ithenticate, says his company’s software takes between 45 seconds and a few minutes to screen a text. Creutz says clients include book publishers like John Wiley and journal publisher Reed Elsevier (NYSE: RUK).
Screening software is also used by video sites like YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) and by document sharing site Scribd.
But while it appears that Amazon could easily employ a filter to protect its authors’ works, it may be under no legal duty to do so.
The Kindle Store as Safe Harbor
Illegal copies are hardly unique to Amazon, of course. The Kindle store is just the latest in a long line of forums, from Grokster to YouTube, through which third parties have offered works without the creators’ permission.
Most times, the websites are not legally at fault. The law protects them by granting “safe harbor” status — a shield that helps internet companies avoid liability when a third party posts copyrighted material on their sites.
Websites can lose their safe-harbor status, however, if they are found to control and directly profit from the unauthorized activities. The meaning of these terms is not entirely clear, though, and is part of a high-profile court case between YouTube and Viacom (NYSE: VIA).
Hillel Parness, a copyright attorney at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, said that courts have found that a website has no duty to act unless it knows about a specific infringement. This means that Amazon is likely not responsible for the plagiarism unless an author can show the company knew a particular title was plagiarized. But Parness adds,
“If authors decide to challenge Amazon, they may choose to focus on the revenue Amazon enjoys on the sale of every e-book. Or perhaps they will question the fairness of placing the burden on authors to monitor Amazon’s e-book marketplace for books that infringe their own. Indeed, one may question if self-published authors even have the practical ability to do so.”
Amazon also stands out because it is a retailer making a direct commission from the unauthorized copies — unlike other safe harbor situations in which a site makes money indirectly via advertising.
In deciding if a site is shielded, courts will also look at its response to copyright complaints. Some plagiarized authors have reported Amazon was slow to take action — a situation that could place it on shaky ground.
Overall, Amazon’s response to the plagiarism problem reflects its status as a relative newcomer to the publishing game. This will no doubt change as the company continues to expand its presence from retailer to content creator.