Plagiarism and Copyright: The Dark Side of Publishing in the Digital Age

Those dreaded words. Plagiarism. Copyright. Infringement. Fraud.

Plagiarism of online work and exploitation of a person’s online profile and platforms are very real fears. As someone who can be very easily searched and found on Google in various results, I know this all too well.

Now, I’m definitely not an expert on navigating the nebulous and horrifying labyrinth of The Web. I’m barely an expert at blogging.

This isn’t a disclaimer. This is me just telling you that if you want sound legal advice about protecting yourself and your work online, then you should probably talk to an IP lawyer.

I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but I have a feeling I will have to have that type of conversation eventually.

The internet is dark and full of terrors, and we, as people who have for some reason chosen to put our names on The Web in whatever forms, need to be mindful of our online profiles.

Copyright and How Google is Good for Something

I submitted my first novel for copyright infringement after my final round of edits last year. I got a fancy letter from the U.S. Copyright Office with my book’s number in the catalog of the Library of Congress. That, in itself, is incredible. It somehow validated my self-publishing efforts.

After that point, I didn’t really know what to do if I found some infringement of my book’s copyright online, or elsewhere. What would that even look like? Did I need to call a lawyer immediately? Was there anything I could do to put a stop to it?

The first thing I did was set up a series of Alerts in the Google account I use for all my self-publishing-related things, including the management of this site.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can set up Google Alerts to scrub webpages looking for things related to you. Google, for all of its faults as a corporation and digital monopoly, is excellent as scrounging through tens of millions of webpages and picking out very minute details, like keywords or metadata, in mere seconds.

You can set up Google Alerts even if you haven’t sold your digital soul to the devil don’t have a Google account. Just go to Google.com/Alerts to get started. If you want more guidance than that, check out a handy article like this. You can set up alerts for anything: bands you want to follow, actors you want to gossip about, companies you want news about/from.

I set up four alerts to keep tabs on my online presence:

  • My full author name
  • My publishing imprint
  • My book’s title
  • My business email address, which is present on a couple of public webpages

These allow me to be notified whenever Google finds a webpage with one of those keyword phrases on it. Like this:

This particular alert was for one of my recent status updates on Goodreads. Thanks, Google!

Simple, right?

Infringement: Day Zero

I don’t receive Google Alerts every day, and when I do, it’s been because one of my keyword phrases was picked up from a website not normally associated with me: Goodreads, perhaps, or another person’s blog if I happen to make an appearance there.

Recently, however, I received the thing I had been dreading ever since I first considered publishing something with my name on it.

I got a Google Alert for my book’s title, and it wasn’t just someone else writing a nice review about my book.

I found a seller’s posting for my book on an online marketplace I had never heard of, let alone authorized.

Someone had been trying to sell WoEM on a site called KissLibrary, which is evidently a Romanian-based eCommerce book seller. Generally, these types of accounts will list your books with claims that there are only a few copies in stock. If they happen to sell one, they’ll order it from you off of Amazon and have it shipped to whoever bought it.

This might sound like a nice deal, what with someone being kind enough to try to sell my books, except these posts tend to undercut the price on your real books, and never ask you, the author/publisher, for permission to do so. They also have the gall to use your cover art in their post, as if they had rights to it.

That is copyright infringement.

I had a mild panic attack. Fortunately, there were several articles about this website. They seem to have a ton of issues with infringement, even though they seem to be an earnest company trying to build a book-selling marketplace alternative to Amazon.

Their website has a very handy link to report fraudulent posts. As the author, the publisher, and the copyright holder, I submitted a claim that the particular posting of my book had been done without my permission. Within 10 minutes, they had removed the post, sent me an email apologizing for the trouble, and evidently suspended the offending account.

That was a huge relief to me, since I had been contemplating looking up intellectual property lawyers in Baltimore at like… 1am.

Don’t Let the Fear Paralyze

Hopefully, any copyright infringement I find on my work will be that easy to handle.

My jaded disposition and general anxiety of bad actors on The Web tell me differently.

And yet, I keep writing. I continue to tag these posts with my name, and I don’t really regret sticking with my real name over a pseudonym for my publishing efforts.

It’s just a part of the industry, and I’d rather be publishing with that little bit of risk, then not publish and regret it later.

Marketing and Brand Management aren’t just about paying for ads, loading your site with keywords, or maintaining 50 social media profiles you don’t actually care about.

You also have to be aware of your own presence online, especially if it can hurt you. So here are a few basic tips to protect your brand.

Protecting the Brand (Yourself)

  1. Use tools like Google Alerts to monitor online activity around you: your name, your trademarks, your book titles. There are thousands of tools, but Google Alerts is free and easy to use if you just feel compelled to do something.
  2. Be conscious of how your various online profiles are connected. If you want to compartmentalize your personal publishing life from your day-job, then don’t link to a LinkedIn profile from your personal blog. Don’t use private social media accounts to promote your books. Most people might be able to connect the dots anyway, but at least make it somewhat difficult for them.
  3. Remember the golden rule of the Internet: Nothing is private, and nothing is ever truly deleted. Unless society collapses utterly, what you post online will stay online forever. I’m also pretty sure that even when society collapses, the internet will exist in some form. That means that you should think twice about posting something that might come back to haunt you. I’m not telling you to censor yourself. Just be mindful of the fact that if it’s on the internet, someone will see it, even fifty years later when you’ve forgotten about it.
Who else has had an unfortunate run-in with copyright infringement?

Steve D 

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