Is Copyright Broken? Part 2 – The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism

Is copyright broken? That’s the question the Alliance of Independent Authors AskALLi team is continuing to ask today. We don’t think it’s broken, but it doesn’t always work. In this two-part series about copyright infringement which started last weekpiracy and plagiarism—we explore both and the impact they’re having on members as well as what you can do about them. With deep thanks to all of our members who contributed with insightful comments and a special thanks to John Doppler, our resident watchdog for his knowledge and contributions to the posts. This is the ultimate guide to plagiarism.

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: Piracy Versus Plagiarism

Self-Publishing Services Watchdog

ALLi’s Watchdog John Doppler

With thanks to ALLi Watchdog John Doppler for his explanations and contributions to this post. Like last week, we’re starting with his definition of both piracy and plagiarism: A pirate unlawfully distributes copies of an author’s books, while the plagiarist repurposes another’s writing as their own.

Plagiarism can be unintentional, as when a nonfiction writer fails to properly credit a quoted passage, for example. It can be coincidental, as when two screenwriters independently develop highly similar treatments. Or it can be deliberate theft, with a plagiarist copying whole words or mixing and matching from a variety of works. (see x below)

They can also differ in legal standing. Copyright is about protecting the commercial rights of the author. Piracy is, at its core, an infringement on commercial rights.

Plagiarism is an ethical failure that may not always fit the legal definition of copyright infringement. We have seen clear incidents of plagiarism that fail to meet the legal requirements of a copyright infringement suit, or are ambivalent. Sometimes too the plagiarist is unrepentant and the plagiarised author is not sure enough of the outcome to take a suit, so the violation goes unpunished.

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: Self-Publishing Platforms

In our digital era, when copying and pasting is so easy, and when anyone can put a formatted document on an online retailer and start trading, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission. Some books are copied word-for-word while others are tinkered with just enough to make it tough for an automated plagiarism-checker to flag them.

When a reader buys a self-published book online, the retailers keep 30 percent or more of the income as sales commission—so they make money whether a book is plagiarized or not. A trade publisher is liable if it puts out a book that violates copyright but self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life or IngramSpark are not publishers, but publishing platforms. The author is the publisher.

And as retailers and distributors Amazon, Kobo and Ingram are protected, as long as they remove offending content on request. Books known to be plagiarized are removed from the platforms. However, it can take a while for the services to respond to complaints. The offending books need only stay up for a few months or even weeks for the plagiarist to profit.

For an author, being plagiarised goes beyond the commercial implications. Writing is a form of creative expression, and having their work appropriated can feel like a personal violation.

Irish author Eilis O’Hanlon and her partner Ian McConnell published a mystery novel The Dead in 2003 under the pen name Ingrid Black. The novel won awards and sold well but went out of print over time–and then surfaced on Amazon as a number-one bestseller in the Irish crime-fiction category, now called Tear Drop by Joanne Clancy.

This was not a new pen name for O’Hanlon and McConnell. They had been plagiarised.

“I felt violated,” O’Hanlon said. “Remembering the nights we didn’t get to bed until four in the morning as we struggled to complete the 120,000-word novel. There was the day, with the deadline for the book looming, when we planted the two eldest children in front of the TV with a mountain of sweets while Ian went upstairs to complete one section and I stood at the worktop in the kitchen, a newborn baby in a sling around my neck, finishing another on my laptop. Writing a novel takes graft. Ian was more sanguine, almost amused at the audacity of what Joanne Clancy had done, but he wasn’t happy to leave the matter there, either. Together, we began considering how best to respond.”

When Clancy moved onto the second book in the series, publishing The Dark Eye as Insincere, O’Hanlon contacted Amazon and emailed Clancy. She was surprised to receive a response in which Clancy admitted what she’d done, and apologized.

Roughly $2,000 of the $18,000 Clancy had made had been transferred to her before the plagiarism was detected. Amazon reimburses royalties if the author can prove plagiarism, but it’s not a straightforward process and proof is needed. Luckily, O’Hanlon had the email from Clancy admitting guilt, which she forwarded to Amazon to receive payment. Amazon paid up, removed the pirated novels and banned Clancy, though the books are still available in print on the Amazon site through third-party sellers.)

Most authors won’t be lucky enough to have a confession email from their plagiarist and would have to hire a lawyer to get any royalties owed.

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: Coronavirus

Plagiarism is still an extremely common problem. As recently as last month, CNBC published an article explaining how Amazon was struggling with a deluge of plagiarized books. Ben Collins of NBC news says:

“At first glance, Richard J. Baily’s book, “Coronavirus: Everything You Need to Know About the Wuhan Corona Virus and How to Prevent It,” appears to be an authoritative deep dive on how to prepare for the pandemic.”

Collins continues to say:

“The book, however, isn’t what it appears to be. Each of the book’s chapters were directly plagiarized from other parts of the web. The first two chapters were lifted verbatim from NBC News stories by Erika Edwards and Sara Miller published in late January. The third chapter, which is dedicated to cleaning tips, was ripped from the website for Nancy’s Cleaning Services, a housekeeping company based in California.”

In another article discussing the same issue, Jonathan Bailey said:

“Amazon isn’t likely to do much to fix the problem. It’s not going to spend money on technology and staff to run it so that it can have fewer books to sell. There’s no motivation for the company to take steps here, especially since they are legally protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) when it comes to copyright.

In short, Amazon could, theoretically, address the problem relatively easily but has no motivation to do so. Now, however, it isn’t just hurting other authors, it’s putting the public at risk.”

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: {lesson learned}

Even New York Times bestselling authors aren’t immune to plagiarism. Nora Roberts recently came under attack from a plagiarism scandal. In an article on AP News Hillel Italie, explains what happened.

“Best-selling novelist Nora Roberts is suing a Brazilian writer for copyright infringement, alleging that Cristiane Serruya has committed “multi-plagiarism” on a “rare and scandalous” level.”

“Roberts called Serruya’s romance books “a literary patchwork, piecing together phrases whose form portrays emotions practically identical to those expressed in the plaintiff’s books.”

“As of earlier this week [April 2019], most of Serruya’s work had been removed from Amazon, although many books remained available on Barnes &, Google Play and elsewhere. In a recent statement to the AP, Amazon said that it takes “violations of laws and proprietary rights very seriously.”

“We use a combination of teams of investigators and automated technology to prevent and catch the vast majority of bad actors who attempt to violate our policies before they publish,” the statement reads. “In the rare instance where one gets through, we investigate and remove violating books. Additionally, all Kindle product pages contain a link for anyone to flag suspicious titles and the team investigates all titles that are flagged.”

As if plagiarism isn’t bad enough, it can get personal too. In a separate article on Plagiarism Today, Jonathan Bailey recounted the ordeal that Rachel Ann Nunes went through. Rachel is an author of Mormon romance and learned in 2014 that she had been plagiarized by one Tiffanie Rushton. The plagiarism was bad but Rachel recounts (in the last article linked), that Tiffanie then proceeded to create fake accounts to harass her. Furthermore, Tiffanie was using the real names of 3rd grades students she taught to set the accounts up. This, however, is one case that does have a happy ending.

Rachel set up a GoFundMe and eventually, lawyer Shawn P. Bailey took on her case. In a conclusion article, is is what Rachel had to say about the outcome:

“While all the funds paid in the plagiarism settlement go to my attorney Shawn P. Bailey for nearly four years of diligent work with very little reimbursement, I feel this is a huge win for me, authors, and copyright. Shawn put in over $225,000 worth of hours into the case, and while the settlement and the earnings on the GoFundMe won’t recoup those lost hours, he is grateful to have been a part of bringing a plagiarist to justice. No, he won’t be charging me the difference!”

One last example. Eilis O’Hanlon, one half of the pen name Ingrid Black discovered she was a victim of plagiarism on Twitter. In an article she penned herself on she explained how their book had gone out of print and the rights reverted to them. They’d intended to turn it into an ebook but hadn’t had the chance when they discovered the plagiarism. She gave an example:

The Dead [Eillis’s book]: “I jumped when the phone rang and checked the number before picking it up. ‘Fitzgerald,’ I said. ‘You read it?’”

“Tear Drop [plagiarised version]: “The shrill ringing of her mobile phone made Elizabeth jump. Reluctantly, she pulled it from her pocket, checking the number before answering. ‘Frank,’ she said. ‘Did you read it?’”

Worse, The Dead wasn’t the only book in Eilis’s series. It too, was out of print.

Insincere came out on October 21, and we must have been among the first to download it. Once again we started reading, quickly confirming that it was a facsimile of The Dark Eye [Eilis’s second out of print novel]. There hadn’t been much doubt in our minds that it would be, but it was still something of a shock.”

Eilis had to provide original PDF copies of the manuscripts. Once she had, the plagiarized copies by Joanne Clancy were taken down. Clancy was banned from Amazon for life.

“Tear Drop [the plagiarized book] had, in fact, earned $15,791.60, or a little short of €15,000 – not bad for a book which was only on sale for a few months. Of this, €1,761.80 had been paid to Joanne Clancy before the book was withdrawn from sale.”

Eilis contacted Joanne directly and amazingly got a response and an apology. Eilis views this experience with humility saying:

“Our ultimate thoughts about her are not as might be expected. In a way we feel sorry for her. Just because she plagiarised our work, doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. It doesn’t even mean that she’s a bad writer. She had put more effort into this project than many lazier plagiarists, and she clearly had a degree of creative ingenuity.”

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: Fighting Back

Most retailers and content platforms will act quickly to terminate copyright infringement, but when the infringement is less obvious, as with a copied plot or paraphrased text, your only recourse may be in a court of law. That means your ability to confront the problem may depend on the laws in your country, the commercial impact on your work, and, unfortunately, your ability to sustain a costly, prolonged legal battle. In the US, copyright cases are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal courts, and attorney’s fees can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When someone’s plagiarized your work and is trading under your name, you have to first write to the distributor(s) and ask them to take it down.

Steps to Follow:

  • Google the offending publisher or their author name if it’s different to yours
  • If the book has been listed for sale and indexed in multiple places, find all links and evidence of all infringements.
  • Report the sites to Google for copyright violation (they’ll remove the site from search results for your book)

You have four options which are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Email the offender and politely and ask them to remove it.
  2. Submit a DMCA takedown to the site that’s selling your work.
  3. Send a cease-and-desist letter threatening to sue. (Suing is not practical unless you can prove financial damages, and the amount you’re seeking to be reimbursed is higher than the legal fees, and you have time to spend on it.
  4. Go public and call them out on social media.

It’s worth noting that often a polite request is enough.

What Not to Do

It’s really important that you don’t accept any offer of payment from the offender. Accepting payment can be seen as an agreement to terms you haven’t seen. This would also make pursuing any legal options significantly harder.

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: Member Opinion 


Chrissie L Parker

Chrissie Parker I have spent time dealing with one individual, as they have been using my content, copied and pasted in full with their name on, to earn money via pay per click. They are persistent and don’t believe copyright exists and my work is fair game. This has been a four year battle. I have chosen to deal with them as it was actually affecting my work as my target audience was reading my posts, then seeing the other persons and getting very confused over who had written it. It was affecting my reputation.”

Martha Louise

Martha Louise I did chase down four perpetrators on which was affiliated with LinkedIn. LinkedIn Customer Support asked for additional information after I sent them a notice of copyright infringement. After I responded, those four disappeared from the site. They all had a number of books listed.”

Dawn Brookes I agree with others. Plagiarism is more serious and is a separate issue. In academia plagiarists are rooted out. I used to teach at the University of Reading back in the day and had written a number of articles for academic journals. After I moved to the Midlands one of my ex colleagues contacted me when a student submitted an almost identical piece of work (word-for-word) as I had written. My ex colleague recognised my work and the student failed! There are people out there who have no qualms about copying another author’s work. I hate that.”

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: How to Avoid Unintentionally Plagiarizing Others

Linda Gillard Plagiarism is also an issue for us as authors who might unintentionally plagiarise. Many authors have fallen foul of their own poor note-keeping (or claimed that was the problem.) I think it could be useful to have guidelines to avoid unintentional plagiarism and advice about what to do if a hideous coincidence suggests we plagiarised.”

None of us want to plagiarized anyone else. We’re all upstanding citizens, but you know how these things go. We take notes, copy and paste and they blend with our own thoughts and before we realize what’s happened, we’ve unintentionally plagiarized someone. So here are a few things to make your you record when you’re taking notes:

  • A links to the article if it’s digital
  • Full name of the book and the author name
  • Page number of the reference or quote
  • Copy the quote out and leave it in quotation marks in your notes as that’s a visual guide to indicate it wasn’t something you wrote
  • If you’re a visual person, you could make a note of always leaving quotes or references in another color

The Indie Author’s Guide to Managing Plagiarism: Readers

While publishing platforms plagiarism systems can throw up the issue, many authors find out about the copyright infringement from readers. Bloggers, book lovers, and other writers are revealing infringements and grouping together to protect authors from having their work stolen, and to put moral pressure on infringements. They rally round, do detective work and contribute evidence that can help an author to build a case.


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