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How Amazon benefits from counterfeit books

A New York Times report finds publishers are giving more money to Amazon to protect themselves from plagiarists.

Amazon Opens First Brick-And-Mortar Bookstore In Seattle
Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle, which opened in November 2015.
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Amazon has a counterfeit book problem. But it isn’t really a problem for Amazon itself, reporter David Streitfeld argued in an investigation published in the New York Times on Sunday. In fact, publishers and authors whose books are photocopied or otherwise plagiarized just come to rely on Amazon even more.

Streitfeld starts by telling the story of the small, Sperryville, Virginia-based medical handbook publisher Antimicrobial Therapy. The company is best known for a book called The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy, which is extremely popular, is commonly used by doctors to prescribe various drugs, and has been ripped off by counterfeiters regularly for the past two years, the Times reports. (This particular scam is actively dangerous, since photocopied versions of the book often smudge numbers in recommended dosages.)

Antimicrobial Therapy’s vice president Scott Kelly told the Times that his company found out about the problem via Amazon reviews (customers wrote things like “Several pages smudged and unable to read”), and started test-purchasing copies of the book via Amazon and third-party sellers. At least 30 of those 34 books turned out to be counterfeit, and Kelly connected the dots between these knockoffs and a “downward spike” in sales in 2018. “My estimate is that approximately 15 to 25 percent of our sales were taken away by counterfeiting,” he told the Times. “We’re talking thousands of books.”

Kelly had such a difficult time getting Amazon to respond to his inquiries and deal with the counterfeiters that, ultimately, the most logical solution was to partner with Amazon as a wholesaler.

Amazon provided a comment for the Times report, saying that “this report cites a handful of complaints, but even a handful is too many and we will keep working until it’s zero.” (Amazon also published a response to the story on its company blog, rebutting some of the specific points of the reporting.) But the theme of the various anecdotes Streitfeld lays out — from fake coding manuals to illegitimate paperback versions of popular novels to “summaries” of blockbuster nonfiction books like John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood — is that they don’t cause problems for Amazon directly. Amazon still makes money off all of these sales, and for the most part, it takes a reactive, not proactive, stance:

Amazon, which does not break out revenue or profit from bookselling or publishing, assumes that everyone on its platform operates in good faith until proven otherwise. “It is your responsibility to ensure that your content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other rights,” it tells prospective publishers and sellers.

In February, Amazon included counterfeiting in its financial disclosures as a risk factor for the first time, saying it might not be able to prevent its merchants “from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated or stolen goods” or “selling goods in an unlawful or unethical manner.”

Though this report focuses on physical copies, Amazon has long been criticized for plagiarism in its e-book store, particularly among users of its self-publishing platform Kindle Direct. In that case, it’s protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which shields third-party platform providers like Amazon from liability so long as they provide a system to receive takedown notices and remove copyright-infringing content.

The Atlantic published a feature on the plagiarism problem in 2016, citing instances in which popular works of fiction were tweaked, renamed, and uploaded as original on Kindle Direct, and pointing out that Amazon keeps its portion of any sales that happen before a customer or author complains.

Up until 2011, users of that program could upload public domain books ripped from the free e-book library Project Gutenberg and generate profit for themselves and the company. In 2012, Gawker published a report on hundreds of thousands of books that were just compilations of Wikipedia articles with titles like “Celebrities With Big Dicks.” Earlier this year, when I reported on dozens of absolutely unreadable and factually disastrous celebrity biographies available on Amazon, First Amendment lawyer Patrick Kabat told me, “Amazon has no reason to be kicking lots and lots of people off. It has no reason to police this stuff for defamation or invasion of privacy, because it doesn’t have to.”

This February, Amazon launched its Project Zero anti-counterfeit program, which gave Amazon-recognized brands the power to police counterfeits themselves and remove fake listings directly. Bill Pollock, founder of the San Francisco-based programming and science guide publisher No Starch, told the New York Times that this solution was just putting even more onus on rights holders to protect themselves: “Why should we be responsible for policing Amazon for fakes? That’s their job.”

But the kicker is that No Starch is still buying deeper and deeper into Amazon out of necessity, now spending “$3,000 a month and rising” to keep its search placement higher than the people who are copying it.

Update: Updated June 24th 12:20 PM to include link to Amazon’s response.

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