‘I don’t want to worry you, but have you seen this website?’ Those were the words from a concerned fellow author who’d found all her books were being offered for free, as PDF downloads, via an unscrupulous website. I searched for my name and found nine of my books listed. My immediate reaction was “Shiver Me Timbers,” or words to that affect. Then I wondered what I should do about it.
In this business of writing, copyright allows us to licence others to reproduce our work in a variety of agreed formats, hopefully for some financial reward. My first book, One Hundred Ways For A Dog To Train Its Human, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is available in print and ebook format, because that’s what the contract agreed. The only other businesses who can publish my words in these formats are the four foreign publishers who’ve negotiated the right to do so.
Therefore this website, offering free pdf downloads, was not only infringing my copyright but also Hodder & Stoughton’s rights as the authorised publisher of the electronic text.
A word of warning. No matter how tempting it might be, never click on any website links offering free downloads of your work. They could simply be a ploy to download harmful viruses, malware or ransomeware onto your computer, either to infect the machine, capture passwords, or encrypt the your data and hold it to ransom. These sites may not be distributing your work, but simply using the offer of a free copy of your book as a means of entrapment. Some pirates are more interested in other peoples’ treasure chest than giving away your literary efforts.
Cynics argue that anyone who isn’t prepared to pay for our hard work deserves all they get from these unscrupulous sites. However, because offering legitimate copies of ebooks for free is a common marketing technique, some readers may not consider the site they’re browsing is doing anything unlawful. Indeed, as I’m writing this, two emails have arrived from reputable publishers offering me a free ebook from a choice of ten. (And they’re bona fide promotions, because I’ve just checked directly with the publisher’s websites and social media platforms too.)
So how should we deal with such sites when we come across them?
Firstly, if your book has been traditionally published you should contact your publisher. They’re much better placed at dealing with these issues. Having a maverick author trying to deal with these websites on their own can complicate matters for the publisher.
If you’re still in touch with an editor, drop them an email and include a link to the specific webpage offering your work. If not, contact the main switchboard and explain the problem. They’ll put you through to the relevant person, usually in the publisher’s legal department.
Hodder use a brand protection company, called Mark Monitor, to search for and deal with any copyright infringes, so they forwarded my information onto them. Mark Monitor issues enforcement notices, which is the legal procedure to get such websites taken down, on Hodder & Stoughton’s behalf.
Mark Monitor claim that content owners (that’s all digital content, such as music, videos, photos, software, and games as well as books) are losing an estimated $100 billion every year, and the company detects 55 million copyright infringements every day. Piracy is big business, because there are oceans of content out there ripe for exploitation.
You should notify every publisher of each of your books that are being pirated on any potentially unlawful websites you come across. Not only do they all need to protect their brand and licences, but if they all take action against a particular website, there’s a greater chance of it being taken down. This particular website was offering nine of my books, published by five different publishers.
Thankfully, all of my books offered for free on this site were those that had been traditionally published. None of my self-published books were available. But, as someone who has self-published, it reminded me that I’m responsible for sorting this out, should something similar happen with any of my self-published material.
Traditionally-published authors should also remember that if any of the rights in their works have reverted back to them, then any action required is down to them. A revision of rights usually takes place when a book goes out of print.
So, while traditionally-published authors can get their publisher’s legal department to do all of the hard work, self-publishers are on their own. Members of the Society of Authors or the Alliance of Independent Authors may find guidance and support from these organisations useful.
The first course of action is to issue a formal notice of takedown, or a cease and desist letter, to the website in question. Many writers think of this as a DMCA notice. However, DMCA refers to the 1998 American Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It’s the formal process American citizens adopt when chasing copyright infringements. If the website offering pirated copies of your material is based in the US, then they will require you to complete a DMCA request, with many websites issuing a form for you to complete.
Jane Davis © Matthew Martin
For UK-based writers a cease and desist letter submitted to the infringing website is the first step. Jane Davis (http://jane-davis.co.uk), author of seven novels, the latest of which is called My Counterfeit Self, has issued several of these. ‘There are plenty of sites that offer free cease and desist letter templates on the Internet. This is a threat of legal action and does not require a solicitor. It’s a case of identifying yourself as the owner of the copyright, pointing out that they are in breach, giving them a timescale in which to rectify that, and advising them of the consequences of failing to do so.’
Jane Davis’ latest novel, My Counterfeit Self is available now.
In her experience, many of these brought about a result, although it can become a never-ending game of cat and mouse. ‘Cease and desist letters usually provoke a quick reaction and material is removed,’ she adds, ‘however my feeling is that pirate companies own many domain names and the material tends to spring up elsewhere.’
In the same way that traditional publishers use third-parties to do all of the chasing and issuing of enforcement notices, new business are offering to do the same for self-publishers. One such company is Blasty (https://blasty.co), which is still operating (at the time of writing) in Beta format, so access to the service is limited. The software scans Google for all mentions of your work, and then provides you with a one-click solution to getting such content removed.
‘I had a free trial of the service,’ Jane explains, ‘and have taken down 365 copies of my books advertised for sale illegally using that service.’
My chats with Jane about her use of Blasty reminded her that she hadn’t used the service for a while. When she logged on again she found a several pirate sites offering her work, but fewer than she’d anticipated. ‘I had not used the site for about three months, having cleared everything down. About ten new illegal copies are listed for each book, so that’s 70 illegal copies of my books doing the rounds. This is not as many as were cropping up before, so perhaps using a service like Blasty puts pirate sites on alert.’
If you get no response from the website in question, the next step is to contact the site’s host, or Internet Service Provider (ISP). These can be found using WhoIs directories, like https://whois.icann.org/en. Simply enter the website’s domain name and you’ll find all the contact details of the domain name registrant, and details of the website host.
European ISPs fall under the EU’s 2010 Electronic Commerce Directive. This clarifies that European website hosting companies are not liable for any illegal content that may have been placed on their services by their customers, if they have no “actual knowledge” of it. However, once they do know about it, they must act quickly to remove or delete it.
One thing we can all do is speak up about pirate websites. So much is available online for free that many people genuinely don’t understand that pirate sites can have such an impact upon a writer’s income.
You can also set up Google Alerts (https://www.google.co.uk/alerts) to notify you of any potential problems. Type in your name, or your book title, and get Google to send you an email every time it comes across a new website containing that information.
But, as Jane says, taking on the pirates is not just about protecting your copyright and the money you’re legally entitled to. It’s about much more than that. ‘Aside from the loss of income, my name is part of my brand and I do not want it to be used to entice readers onto illegal sites.’
That’s why we should be vigilant against such issues, and be explicit with our readers. Free promotions are a key marketing strategy for both traditionally published and self-published authors, so Jane recommends educating our readers accordingly. ‘Ensure readers know the risks of using pirate websites and notify them where books are legitimately available for free.’
There will always be pirates out there, and they don’t always advertise themselves by flying the Jolly Roger. Keep a look out from the crow’s nest, and with a bit of heave ho we can make them walk the plank and scuttle their efforts, even if it is only on a temporary basis. Perhaps, eventually, our constant shots across the bows will show them we’re determined to protect our own treasure chest of words.
If you’ve come across sites offering pirated copies of any traditionally published books (not just your own) advise the Publishers’ Association at: https://www.publishers.org.uk/activities/copyright-ip/preventing-piracy/report-piracy/
Example Cease and Desist Letter: https://www.lawdepot.co.uk/contracts/cease-and-desist-letter-uk/ (Select copyright infringement option.)