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Rousting the Book Pirates From Google

30 August 2015

From The New York Times:

The Haggler will now don his professorial tweeds because he starts this episode in teacher mode. All of the action below revolves around the Google Play store.

. . . .

In Forbes recently, Erik Kain called Google Play “an ugly, poorly organized store filled with myriad knockoffs, dubious ‘games’ and other apps.” That sounds a bit harsh to the Haggler, a Google Play regular who has had mostly positive experiences.

That said, the site has problems.

Q. Book piracy has taken a new form. Someone scanned my entire e-book, “Graphic Design Solutions,” created a new cover and is selling it on Google Play. It is the same e-book, verbatim, and inside are the same images, same layout and the same interviews. The only difference is the name of the author. A person named Jazmin Bonilla gets the credit.

My royalties have plummeted, which affects my ability to donate to scholarships for my university students. Both my publisher and I have notified Google, but no action has been taken. Maybe the company will listen to you.


. . . .

[The Haggler’s] first thought was that if e-book piracy were a serious issue on Google Play, there would be other examples. There are many. A quick search led the Haggler to a site called The Digital Reader. There, the writer Nate Hoffelder detailed “rampant” e-book piracy, as he put it in a May post, in Google Play. He found that one shop was selling more than 100 pirated versions of best sellers by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Sidney Sheldon and Ellery Queen.

They cost $2.11 each. But even these oddly priced bargains were kind of a rip-off. Mr. Hoffelder downloaded a few and found they “were clearly inferior copies with missing formatting, generic or outdated covers, and other problems,” he wrote.

. . . .

Mr. Hoffelder said that Google was aware of the problem but responded slowly to complaints from authors and publishers and sometimes did not respond at all. As bad, when the company acted, he stated, it would often remove pirated e-books but allow e-book pirates to remain on the site.

. . . .

So the Haggler contacted Google. He included a link to both the authentic “Graphic Design Solutions” in Google Play as well as the fake. A guy named Matt McLernon immediately got in touch. Like many members of Google’s public relations staff, Mr. McLernon was exceptionally pleasant — and hamstrung. Google is forever worried that the details of its inner workings will be used to game its algorithms and filters and secret sauces by an assortment of miscreants. So its P.R. team is filled with really bright, really friendly people who dearly wish they could be more helpful.

That said, we have enough light to see what happened. About 18 months ago, Google Play started selling self-published e-books. Any author could post and sell his or her work on the site. But in February — and why this started then is a mystery that Mr. McLernon did not explain — a wave of piracy was spotted by book publishers.

“It was mostly e-books in the science fiction genre,” said Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer at HarperCollins. “So we had a number of calls with Google.”

It emerged that the pirated books were being uploaded by people using Google Play through its self-publishing channel. People were opening accounts, ostensibly to publish their own work, and then selling digital copies of popular, and not so popular, e-books that they had not written.

“I don’t know if it is my immense power,” Ms. Restivo-Alessi said, “or if they were having similar conversations with other publishers at the time, but they listened to me, and they shut down the point of entry for these pirates.”

Mr. McLernon confirmed this. In May, Google stopped enrolling any new self-publishing authors. At the same time, a team of employees went through all of the complaints filed by publishers. Pirate accounts were deleted. (The company eventually plans to restart the program.)

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Stephen for the tip.

Google, Piracy

38 Comments to “Rousting the Book Pirates From Google”

  1. One thing most likely slowing Google down is getting proof that the actual rights holders are actually asking to have their work stolen by others removed. (Considering the number of take-down demands Google receives by companies the don’t own the rights to what they’re demanding be removed. I remember a story a while ago about the RIAA demanding a book be taken down, because it had the same name as a song — the real joke as I recall was that the book had been out longer …)

    • no way are they slow, Google who many of us have or had contracts with, have more lawyers in the thousands worldwide than you have letters in your name.

      If you’ve ever infringed on GOOG, they’ll have your gizzard roasting in a couple hours.

      On the other hands, GOOG was once ‘the pirate’ themselves when they scanned millions of books without author permissions and didnt even give the authors access to the scans of their own books.

  2. As I’ve said before about Google – human customer service is not in their DNA. The company is all about getting computers to do things completely automatically. If you present them with a situation that demands regular human input, the corporate culture there does not reward that.

  3. Is this type of piracy more of a problem on Google Play than on amazon? And if so, what has amazon successfully done to minimize it?

    • I don’t know how much money the pirates were earning, but yes it was a serious issue. (FYI: I’m the Nate Hoffelder mentioned in the exceprt).

      Google play books had industrial scale piracy going on this spring. The pirates were ripping off dozens of books and uploading them to GPB. As each copy was taken down by a DMCA notice, the pirates would upload another copy of the same book and continue their nefarious activities.

      I blogged about this earlier this year. Here are a few of my posts:

      • Thanks Nate, and best to you man. You were one of the few whistleblowers, while others were loudly bloviating about how wonderful piracy is for everyone.

        Others fantasized that false DMCAs were being sent out by the thousands by whomever. Most often, no facts, just some guy who heard some guy who heard some guy say some un-named guy said blah and blah. But urban legends are apparently catchy to those who gossip them forward.

        Organized crime here and from other continents have always thrived on theft, larcency, fraud, illegal use of goods and humans, each operation supporting the others. Pirated goods are no different.

        • false DMCA notifications are not a fantasy. They are happening routinely and there are many well documented examples.

          I don’t think anyone has claimed that wholesale piracy doesn’t matter or is beneficial. That’s taking money from people who think they are paying the owner and giving them fake goods.

          What people do claim is that end-user piracy is far from the “every copy is a lost sale” and in some cases can be revenue positive for the work being pirated.

          • thanks David: Many of us are far more concerned about lack of transparent facts about how owns the pirate sites and where the money for ads, and memberships actually goes. We think it goes often to nefarious criminal interests.

            And yes, there are some who think piracy is great. For themselves.

            We still want to know who owns the sites, and what use the money gained by piracy is put to.

            Those questions arent going away given the ways org crime raises money for various other crimes and arms.

      • Strictly speaking, taking a book and selling it as if it’s your own, it’s not piracy, but theft, which should be treated more strictly than piracy where the goods are offered for free.

    • Amazon has more customer service reps. Getting a hold of a human being at Google is very hard. Google makes it almost impossible. It’s kind of funny considering the size of their work force.

      • One can easily contact people at Google. But not by calling them on phone. Same as at AMZ, you can write to Bezos, or his Board or any number of slam dunk ways in.

    • Amazon does some kind of intensive automated scans. People on author boards are forever getting notices asking to prove copyright, particularly if they’re in a boxed set or something of that sort. Generally, a note that you actually own it is sufficient, but they do check and probably those automated checks are enough to turn on the proverbial light and scare away the cockroaches.

  4. Google no longer seems to know what kind of company it is. Is it a search company? An advertising company? An automated car company? A mobile phone company? A retailer? Who knows?

    They just seem to jump on the Next Big Thing, throw money at it for a while, then move on and let it rot. Or buy companies already working on the Next Big Thing, then suck out anything that made those companies interesting and let them rot.

    So I’m not surprised that, after deciding they had to let self-published writers publish on Google Play, they soon stopped caring about it.

    • “Google no longer seems to know what kind of company it is. Is it a search company? An advertising company? An automated car company? A mobile phone company? A retailer? Who knows?”

      And that is why Google is now Alphabet. It’s a holding company, a chimera.

      • Good point, I’d forgotten that.

        Another sign that they’ve lost their way.

        • Part of it is that they are getting desperate for a second act; another cash cow to supplement/replace search when the next pair of young techies in a garage reinvents the world.

          They look around and see IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and even HP with multiple lines of business and they keep throwing stuff at the wall with little to show for it other than ad revenue. Money’s good but one-trick ponies don’t live forever.

          And with ad-blocking on the rise…

          • They’re also going to lose the low end of the smartphone market to Microsoft unless they get their act together on Android. I just dumped my Android table for an iPad because I got sick of the unpatched security vulnerabilities, and the constant claims they’re going to introduce useful permission controls when they never do.

            That’s where the need for Android to feed their advertising revenue conflicts with the need for people to have secure systems.

      • I’d agree Nate. We talked about how come GOOG didnt go Alpha-Zeta or Alpha-Omega, instead of ‘alphabet’ which reminds many of us of the child soup, mushy and leaving orange dye all over the place.

        Many say Sergei etc lost interest; that the unit has too many arms, that being tied up in massive amounts of litigation abroad and here has disheartened. Etc. Some say they lost huge share over their seeming colluding with China to jam access.

        However, their stock still rides at about 600 a share…

        Go figure

        • Online ad distribution is a huge business. Look at how Amazon’s tiny share adds up to over a billion a year. So even a stalled, bored Google gets to essentially print money and Wall Street likes companies like that. Until they decline even a bit…

          Google’s deeper problem is that, aside from search, most of their products remain in perpetual beta and as a result they’ve never developed the skills to finish off quality products. And since a lot of their products are me-too…

          Sooner or later Wall Street will notice but by then it might be too late. Wouldn’t surprise me if Alphabet is a first step towards spinning off Google while leaving the cash hoard behind.

          • Online ad distribution is a huge business.

            For how much longer?

            I have numerous levels of ad-blocking on my home desktop and laptop. I’m appalled every time I browse the web on my iPad or Android tablet by just how much advertising is stuffed into the majority of web sites. And, if I was using mobile data on my phone, I would be paying to download all that crap.

            I believe Apple have said they’re planning to add ad-blocking features to their web browser before long. Pretty soon, that’ll be another reason to buy their products over Google’s, which can’t promote ad-blocking because the ads are where they make their money.

            • Which is why I’m still using that memory leak known as firefox …

              I may have to restart it every other day or so, but AdBlocker, NoScript and a couple other toys keep me from seeing most ads.

              As to Apple? I’ve seen them play too many ‘walled garden’ games to want to cross that stream. (now if a couple programs I used just played nice under Linux, I could finally tell Billy where to get off too … 😉 )

              • I finally could not handle Firefox’s stability issues – try Chrome with AdBlock, Scriptblock, and Ghostery. Scriptblock handles controls a little differently than NoScript, but I got used to it. Browser’s a lot more stable at least.

            • Me too. AdBlock, Ghostery, and Scriptblock in this Chrome browser, for example.

              When I visit a familiar site on a browser not my own, I’m often stunned at how different it looks. Ads are out of control. I do pay for “memberships” at a few sites (few bucks a month type memberships) to support them financially, and in return they don’t show me ads. More sites should offer this option, although I’m unsure how many people actually subscribe when they offer it.

  5. What a timely post! Today I filed my first Digital Millennium Copyright Act Takedown Notice upon an ostensibly Russian owned company called BookMate (https://bookmate.com/reader/L6OQRHXF). Bookmate’s copyright agent has a California address. I am not sure who the pirate is, but they had uploaded an older epub copy of my work that had a few formatting issues in it. That epub copy was on GPB, Kobo, Nook and Bookbaby. For the time being, I have removed my work from all those accounts. The blessing comes in the lesson: Do an extensive search on your work, you may be unpleasantly surprised by what you find.

  6. Things like other retailers’ inability to deal with pirated work will continue to make going exclusive with Amazon seem a better deal. Even though Amazon has piracy issues, they CLEARLY have some kind of filter in place that checks newly uploaded titles against what’s on the site. Authors are often asked to reverify copyright when publishing a new edition of a book, or a stand-alone that is also part of an existing bundle.

    I just wish the other ebook retailers would be competent. They don’t have to be amazing, but at least get the basics down.

    • Amazon’s gone a bit overboard. I had some books up on KDP since 2012 — books I wrote. I adjusted the price of a couple and they began to berate me about being the author. I had to come up with a contract with myself to prove the books were mine, and no, I’m not kidding. They ended up blocking several books with no recourse. I’m waiting for the Next Big Thing® to come along and I’ll be the first in line to jump ship.

    • How does being exclusive at Amazon stop someone from buying your book, stripping the DRM if necessary, then uploading it to a pirate site or publishing it at another retailer?

      I’d think that if you’re worried about pirates selling your book, you’d want it at as many retailers as possible, so that every retailer where a pirate might sell the book already has a copy of it and can ask awkward questions when the pirate tries to publish it. (Obviously some retailers don’t do this, but if they’re already selling your book, they can’t claim ignorance.)

  7. Amazon check the content of books against what’s available online to prevent people selling skimmed content. They picked up my book for parents of disabled kids because I’d also put the entire text online on a website, and asked if I it was really mine. They were happy once I’d explained the reasoning behind what I was doing, and I remain happy that they are helping protect us from content theft.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Google are less thorough.

    • On the other hand, Amazon watches its competitors like a hawk so if an exclusive title shows up elsewhere they’ll notice and notify the author. Pretty fast, too.

  8. The part I don’t understand is why Google doesn’t run software over submissions to detect plagiarism/theft. If Grammarly can do this for term papers with a degree of success, why can’t the czar of algorithms run a simple check?

    • Google already does that for YouTube uploads (picture and soundtrack), so if I was being cynical, I’d say it was because a big publisher hasn’t sued them yet and forced them to do that checking as part of the settlement.

    • Because they have no legal obligation to do so?

      • With Google the least they can do, IP-wise, is the most they will do.

        And it wasn’t just with YouTube or the “orphan” books rights grab; look at the IP mess they got into with Android. They had to go buy Motorola just to slow down the patent violation suits.

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