GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform is already revolutionizing the world of self-publishing. A few weeks ago, on this program, we spoke with a paranormal romance fiction writer Amanda Hocking. She's made more than $2 million selling her e-books through sites like Amazon's. And every day, thousands of budding authors are uploading their work to the site, creating a bookstore to rival the biggest libraries in the world. But with that, there are problems, and one potentially huge one.
SHARAZADE: OK. My name is Sharazade, and I go by Shar, usually. That's a pen name.
RAZ: Tell me what your books are about.
SHARAZADE: Well, they're about sex.
RAZ: Shar is a rising star in Amazon's erotica section.
SHARAZADE: I do a lot of travelings. And most of my stories are travel-based in some way, either set in an exotic location or having to do with modes of transportation, trains, airplanes, buses.
RAZ: But Shar is also an entrepreneur. She publishes erotica for other writers as well, including a story she put up on Amazon recently called "Taking Jennifer."
SHARAZADE: So I was there watching Jennifer climb up in the rankings. And on the US site, it eventually got to number 21 in the free erotica, and on the UK site, it got to number three. When you're that close to the top, then you - I think it's natural that you look around to see what the competition is like.
So I took a look at the book that was holding fast at number one, which is a book by an author called Maria Cruz, and the book was called "My Sister Bestfriend.
RAZ: "My Sister Bestfriend."
SHARAZADE: I was being beaten by a book with an ungrammatical title. I mean, it's one thing to be beaten by "My Sister's Best Friend," but, you know, "My Sister Bestfriend"? So I clicked on the author to see what else she'd written, and there were, I think, 42 titles of which 41 were erotica, also, many of them with ungrammatical titles: "My Stepsister Pretty Little Mouth," "Domenating Her" but spelled D-O-M-E-N-A-T-I-N-G, "Lesbian MILF Seductress: Bride Vol. One."
RAZ: Maria Cruz was clearly prolific and successful. But one title seemed out of place. It was called "Dracula Amazing Adventure."
SHARAZADE: And, you know, I've worked as a college professor, and my spidey senses were tingling. So I took a sentence from the description and I put it between quotes and dropped it into Google and Bram Stoker's "Dracula" came up. It was word for word "Dracula."
RAZ: Word for word.
SHARAZADE: Word for word, down to the correct punctuation.
RAZ: And once she realized "Dracula" was plagiarized, Shar became curious about Maria Cruz's other books.
SHARAZADE: So I opened up their previews, as well, and began dropping sentences into Google, and every single one of them turned up somewhere else, mostly from the website literotica.com.
RAZ: Maria Cruz was a fraud. Shar also came across another fraudulent and prolific author in the erotica category. He sold his books under the name Luke Ethan. He was selling a book called "My Stepmom Loves Me," and it, too, was lifted from literotica.com. The original story was written by a man named Dave Springer who lives in San Francisco. So it was the same exact story.
DAVE SPRINGER: Even the misspellings.
RAZ: Except Luke Ethan changed the title. Originally, it's called "I Remember Mother."
SPRINGER: I thought it was funny. I was complimented. To think that somebody felt my writing was good enough to try to sell to other folks, and I thought it was funny that the poor souls who were paying $3 for 28 pages online could have gotten it from several different places for free.
RAZ: Amazon sold 187 copies of the book for a total of $559.13. And who is Luke Ethan? Well, not surprisingly, a made up name. Turns out, the man behind the name lives in Kuwait. He claims he purchased the rights to the book through a third party. The person who tracked Luke down and who wrote about Shar, Dave Springer and other writers who were plagiarized on Amazon is Adam Penenberg. His article appeared in the January issue of Fast Company magazine. How big is this problem?
ADAM PENENBERG: If you get in there and start checking out some authors, some authors will have 30, 40, 50 different e-books that they'll post over a very short period of time, and - you know, in the erotica world - and the numbers just keep growing every day. And then eventually, maybe Amazon shuts them down because they find out that they're plagiarized works, and then they just start up again, sometimes under the same name and other times under different pen names.
RAZ: OK. Now, why does erotica seem to be sort of ground zero of all this plagiarism?
PENENBERG: You know, I think other genres are afflicted by this. There are a lot of plagiarized books on how to. You know what they do, they find a how-to guide on the Internet, they copy and paste it, and all of a sudden, all these different books with that same exact information are being sold under different names, business books, or like how to invest in insurance funds or something like that, you know, books that are targeted for a specific market, they're ripe for plagiarism as well.
RAZ: What responsibility does Amazon have, you know, legally speaking, for this? Any?
PENENBERG: Well, that is a very good question. Some might say you could point to Amazon-Kindle's agreement. And in it, it does say, in one of the clauses, if you believe that your work was illegally infringed, then Amazon-Kindle will pay you the royalties for that. Now, there's also law that govern this. There's the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and that has some complexity as well.
RAZ: Well, if Amazon says they're going to pay you the royalties, then they should be paying David Springer the royalties that Luke Ethan received, right?
PENENBERG: You would think so. But then, it gets down to, well, who gets to decide it's copyright infringement? And the only one who can do that is a judge. And that's a pretty high standard. And so Amazon could hide behind that.
RAZ: And David Springer's clearly not going to go to court for a few hundred bucks.
PENENBERG: No, he's not.
RAZ: This seems to me like it's going to be a bigger and bigger problem, right, I mean, as e-publishing becomes more and more dominant and more people start to self-publish online.
PENENBERG: I think it's equivalent to spam. You know, the vast majority of spam is intercepted by ISPs and gateways, but a lot does get through. That shows you just how much is sent. And, you know, the same thing is happening with e-books where it's much easier to make money.
All you got to do is steal some content or make up some content, induce someone to buy it. If there's shame attached to erotica, that makes it even easier because people are less likely to complain about it. And so you end up with a situation where you can make some money, and it comes in whether you do anything or not.
So you just post it once, Amazon doesn't see it for a while, and you get four, five, six months' worth of royalties and, you know, make a few hundred bucks. And if you do that enough, you do have enough books on there, you can make some good money.
RAZ: That's Adam Penenberg. He teaches journalism at NYU. His article "Amazon's Plagiarism Problem" appeared in the January issue of "Fast Company" magazine. We also reached out to Amazon to be part of the story. The company provided a written statement that says it's worked steadily to detect and remove books that violate copyright. Amazon's agreement with authors indemnifies the company for damages against copyright violations. And once you agree to the terms, Amazon isn't responsible.
By the way, those books by Maria Cruz and Luke Ethan? They're no longer available on amazon.com.