STATE OF THE ART: Is Amazon's Kindle the Wild West?

It’s been almost a month since Amazon deleted illegal versions of George Orwell’s “1984” from customers' Kindles. But while news reports and blogs empathized with Kindle readers as the hapless victims of Orwellian-style censorship, hardly anyone expressed sympathy for the authors and publishers getting ripped off by pirated copies of their works.

(The blog AppScout even described Amazon as “stealing” books back from the Kindle, without mentioning the theft of revenues from the rightful publisher.)

The New York Times’ report reveled in the delicious irony of Amazon erasing words from your Kindle, just as the censors in Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” erased news articles embarrassing to Big Brother and sent them down the “memory hole.”

What the article didn’t say is that there are uncounted other outlaw books on Kindle’s online store—illegal in that a self-styled “e-publisher” has scanned the book and posted it on Kindle’s website without bothering to buy the rights from the author or publisher. As Amazon explained to the Times, the Orwell books it deleted--“1984” and “Animal Farm”-- had been added to the Kindle store by a company that didn’t have the rights, using a “self-service function.” Amazon removed the books only after the rights holder, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Orwell’s original publisher, complained. The publisher has its own (legal) digital editions of the Orwell books for sale on the site.

Some illegal books are short-lived. Unauthorized copies of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (illegal since J.K. Rowling has not released the rights for any e-book versions) made it onto the Kindle site “for all of about an hour” the same week as the "1984" erasure, reported a participant in Kindle’s customer web forum July 16.

Other pirated books seem to have a longer shelf life. Arthur Klebanoff’s RosettaBooks was an early pioneer in buying the digital rights to 20th Century masterpieces in 2001, before most people had even heard of e-books. RosettaBooks owns the exclusive U.S. electronic rights to six of Virginia Woolf’s books, including classics like “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse” and “Orlando.” And Kindle sells those RosettaBooks editions on its website.

But while talking on the phone with me the week after the "1984" story broke, Klebanoff put “Virginia Woolf” into the Kindle Store’s search engine and was surprised to discover that the first 10 listings were rife with illegal versions of her classics—and this was still true last time I checked. A typical consumer is given no information to suggest these are stolen merchandise or that there are competing legal versions on the site.

Three of Woolf’s novels in the top ten—“Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse” and “Orlando”-- are listed by the same publisher that was illegally marketing “1984,” MobilReference, and for the same cheap price—99 cents. Three more of Woolf’s works to which RosettaBooks has an exclusive—“The Years,” “The Waves,” and her seminal feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own”—can also be had for 99 cents from MobilReference on Kindle. By contrast, the Kindle Store sells the RosettaBooks versions of those six Woolf classics for $3.30 to $5.99 (discounted from Rosetta’s suggested list price of $9.99).

Who is hurt by this hawking of illegal books? First of all the author, or in this case the Society of Authors in Britain, which is the literary representative for Virginia Woolf’s estate. As for RosettaBooks, “We’re being robbed of market share,” says Klebanoff. Amazon is also losing money since it would obviously earn more profit if it sold the more expensive authorized version.

Oddly, it doesn’t appear that Amazon could be completely unaware of this conflict. If you go to the Kindle page for RosettaBooks’ edition of “To the Lighthouse,” listed at $4.99, you’ll be informed that “after viewing this item,” 9 percent of customers buy the 99 cent MobileReference edition—yes, the illegal one--with a handy link that takes you right to it.

Klebanoff says he has sent numerous cease and desist letters to those who post such books illegally. But pirated versions have a tendency to pop up “like mushrooms,” he says, and for Virginia Woolf in particular it “would require a vacuum cleaner” to get rid of all the illegal files on the web.

What this also suggests is that today’s very-much-alive authors have to worry about illegal scams and unauthorized postings electronically, especially if they have a well-known book.

It hasn’t helped that publishers have been slow to digitize their backlists and to obtain electronic rights from their authors. In fact, what may have encouraged illegal postings of “1984” was a hiatus of a few months after RosettaBooks’ exclusive rights ownership on it expired and before Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to take it over.

And rogue websites that post books probably figure that any book by a dead author is out of copyright and therefore in the public domain, i.e. legal to copy. That’s generally true for books published before 1923, but “Mrs. Dalloway,” for example, was published in 1925.

Admittedly, since Amazon offers only about 230,000 Kindle titles for sale out of the millions of physical books that somebody wants to read in digital form, it’s not surprising that it’s hard to control all of the illegal copying out there in cyberspace. The atmosphere surrounding book postings has turned into a Wild West frontier where web sites post a book until or unless someone tells them not to.

Still, shouldn’t Amazon have a better system of policing illegal postings on its own site?

I’m curious to know how many other illegal e-books are being marketed not just on the Kindle but on other reputable websites. If any writers out there have had experience with this scam, please share your examples. How vigilant do authors need to be in tracking pirated e-books skimming off the profits that should be theirs?

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Tags: #publishing, e-publishing

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Comment by Pamala Knight Duffy on August 15, 2009 at 8:41am
Thanks for such a well-written report on the situation. I'm a new Kindle owner and my viewpoint on the whole debacle was yes, Amazon punted when they removed the work without an explanation first. But should it have been removed? Absolutely. Downloading works in the public domain without worrying about publishing right is one thing, but illegally profiting at someone else's expense when that work is not free and clear of copyright is a whole 'nother ball of wax.
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on August 14, 2009 at 6:12pm
This is such an important, well-reported piece -- I wonder how this ties in with the Chris Anderson idea of "Free" (I love this piece by Malcolm Gladwell: "Priced to Sell." This is such a crucial debate -- how do we think about books, the information they contain, and how the people who write them are paid for them? And if you can't control piracy or the content, how do you earn a living as a writer or a publisher?
Comment by Alison Groves on August 14, 2009 at 3:17pm
I have zero knowledge of how a Kindle operates (I'm trying to keep just one facet of my life digital free), but by what you've written I gather it is just like a mp3 player in the sense that you can load any sort of compatible file on it. If that is the case, you'll NEVER be able to ensure that everything loaded onto it is legal. Amazon could control this a bit by only accepting legit publishers (those who are pre-approved, possibly) list their titles for sale, instead of including Some Dude With a Scanner, Inc.

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