How e-book pirates are stealing billions from writers - and how the industry is fighting back - Press Gazette

How e-book pirates are stealing billions from writers - and how the industry is fighting back

One night, while scanning my name on Google, I discovered a hyperlink to a free download of my writing book, Basic Magazine Writing (Writer’s Digest Books). I own the book’s copyright. I hadn’t sold the e-rights. The discovery triggered jolts of bone-tingling fear, helplessness, and rage at the theft of my book.

The site looked legitimate. It featured free downloads of all kinds – biographies, memoirs, business, and Bibles. I couldn’t get any shuteye. I was wracked with questions. Had my copyright been stolen? Had e-rights to the work I spent sleepless nights to finish been sold without permission? I didn't know what to think.   

I called Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Media, promptly at 9am. Questions of an e-sale morphed into e-piracy. To my relief, F+W Media Copyright Coordinator Alex Rixey copied the web address and found the pirated download. Mine was not the only work from this publisher on the rogue site. Rixey sent the site’s host my link with a notice of copyright infringement and a DMCA take-down request. The US 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act increases penalties for internet copyright infringement, but restricts service providers from liability for infringements by their users.

I later learned my case of e-book theft is not an isolated incident. Book piracy is an industry-wide phenomenon. According to a 2010 study of e-book downloads, the global publishing industry loses $2.8 billion annually to book piracy. The top countries with the greatest number of rogue book sites offering pirated content include the US, China, Germany, Netherlands and Russia in that order. Simon & Schuster Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Adam Rothberg says: “We see a lot of piracy when books are first published and receiving a lot of marketing attention– from adult to children’s books…We are in a constant battle to make sure our authors' works are not used in unauthorised ways.”

Bestsellers are not the only victims. Last year, Aldous Huxley’s much backlisted title, Brave New World, a staple of high school and college English courses, was the most pirated title worldwide of Rosetta Books, a pioneer in e-book publishing.

In 2009, two years after Amazon Kindle’s launch, e-books as a percentage of total book sales were two to three per cent. In the past five years that number has increased ten-fold to 30 per cent, and so has book piracy.

As a result, Simon & Schuster along with over a hundred of the world’s largest multi-imprint publishers like Harper Collins, Random House, Macmillan, Elsevier, and prominent smaller ones like Scholastic have engaged an outside firm, Digimarc, to crawl the web 24/7 worldwide for unauthorised postings of their books and remove them. For example, according to a 2013 report, Digimarc sent out over 10,000 DMCA take-down notices to 242 sites globally for over two hundred e-books from Rosetta Books – almost half their 2013 catalog.

European-based internet providers will comply with DMCA notices because under the Electronic Commerce Directive adopted by the European Union in 2000, they are obligated to remove or disable access to unlawful information once notified.

Consequently, Fred Courtright, President of The Permissions Company — which handles over 60 clients like Hatchette Book Group, small publishers like Graywolf Press, and estates like that of W.E.B. Du Bois — had success resolving a blatant infringement by a European-based pirate site. He wrote to the site’s host company about four poetry books illegally posted on the web. Says Courtright: “Two days after the host received my note, it got rid of the four web pages.” He adds: “Nothing copyrighted is safe from the internet any more, not even poetry.”

When rogue websites resist compliance, Rosetta Books Production and Distribution Director Greg Freed says: “Digimarc provides commercial incentives by threatening their advertising revenue stream.”

Before such drastic measures, two Digimarc staff members will validate the infringement and initiate the first of three DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notices . Then if the site is completely unresponsive, Digimarc Guardian Group President Eraj Siddiqui says: “We escalate to the enablers of the site. We contact the host with the license, the advertisers or payment providers, or IP Registrars. If the piracy site is particularly egregious, the publishers together with government agencies will litigate and shut it down.”

The company also asks Google to remove illegal sites from its search index. Siddiqui stresses: “Google absolutely complies in nearly 100 per cent of the cases.”

Because of Digimarc’s multi-prong weapons against illegal downloads globally, almost 9,000 or 88 per cent of Rosetta Books’ 2013 copyright violations were eliminated from the web worldwide.

But when a pirated book is used for a credit card scam or something else, as Rosetta Production and Distribution Director Freed learned, publisher and author are on their own. Last year, a Rosetta e-author got two Google alerts about rogue sites offering free downloads of her book. In one case, a site offered an .exe that would have installed viruses; the other asked for a credit card before promising a download link. Very upset, she protested to Freed. Hard as it was, he counseled forbearance. “I told her neither site has your asset. Consider them phishing sites and move on.”

The download for my writing book was a virus. Once installed, it could have stolen  users’ confidential financial information and identify. Within an hour of receiving the DMCA notice, the web manager of, a Los Angeles directory for canine services and the host of, the book site with my work, deleted the link. I was one of the lucky ones.

Copyright © 2014 by Barbara L. Kevles. All Rights Reserved

A former Book-of-the-Month Club author, Barbara Kevles has written for numerous national publications including, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar and The Paris Review.