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Garrett McCord

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Theft of a Food Blog: Copyright Infringement in the e-Book Marketplace

Posted: 08/03/2012 10:51 am

Vegan Diet: The Art of Living: Inspired By Eat to Live: 200+ Recipes Cookbook was by most standards considered a commercial success as an e-book, selling hundreds of copies to many eager and hungry vegans. The recipes were tested, well photographed, and practical for the everyday cook - vegan or not.

They were also stolen.

Each and every recipe had been lifted from a personal blog and recipe website, Fatfree Vegan Recipes. It's a popular online destination for vegans where food blogger, Susan Voisin, posits her meat-free musings and vegan recipes; and where her readers can submit their own recipes and be an active part of the vegan community.

"Some of the recipes that were stolen were mine, but the majority were contributed to my site by other people. The 'writer' of the e-book took the recipes and stripped out the headnotes and the lines that gave credit to the recipes' creators," says Voisin.

The book had come to Voisin's attention in Amazon's e-book listings when she was tracking her Amazon Affiliate record. She noticed that some of the recipes in the e-book seemed familiar and so she bought a copy to further investigate. That's when she discovered the theft.

Voisin wrote to Amazon's copyright infringement agents and provided recipe URLs from her blog to back up her claim, but when they failed to respond she took to social media and detailed the situation. Within minutes the review page for the e-book was ravaged with reports of plagiarism.

Amazon did finally respond to Voisin and took the book down. Voisin requested a refund on the copy she purchased and a refund for everyone else who purchased the e-book. Amazon has yet to offer her a refund on the copy she purchased. She is currently in the process of working with Amazon on another plagiarism claim; in this case, one of her photographs was used as the cover for another e-book.

Sadly, Voisin's experience isn't unique, and while blog plagiarism isn't anything new. Crawler sites trawling the Internet and irresponsible bloggers who simply don't know better (or don't care) are commonplace. However, this sort of theft is entering a new arena of dastardliness that most bloggers are unequipped and unprepared to handle.

E-books have become hot commerce in recent years. Kindle is currently the number one selling item on Amazon's website, and Microsoft recently invested $300 million into Barnes and Noble's Nook subsidiary in order to claim a hefty share of the electronic reader market. With plentiful samples, prices that shame hardbacks, and content a simple push of a button away some people wonder if the e-books will make paper books extinct.

In addition, self-publishing has becomes more practical -- and easier -- than ever. Household name bloggers are the new celebrities who can sell books into multiple printings. Plus, higher unemployment has encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit. With an increasing number of avenues in which to pursue creative lines of business it was logical that companies like Amazon and Lulu - a popular self publishing website - have seen self-published works flood the market. Simply turn on your e-reader and browse the overwhelming selection.

Unfortunately, as technology advances so do the ways it can be abused, and a committed thief eager to make a buck can circumvent what review processes and plagiarism guards are set up. After all, how can any system possibly screen every book?

Elise Bauer, founder of the popular food blog Simply Recipes, suffers through intellectual property theft on a near-daily basis from other websites and blogs. The e-books were a new kind of crime - one where people were illicitly making money off of her writing, recipes, and photography.

Bauer found e-books on a wide variety of topics had been created with content that came from her website. The pictures, headnotes, and recipes were all intact but her name and blog name were left out.

"Once someone downloads a book onto their Kindle [Amazon] will never take it back. This means there are hundreds of copies of my content on Kindles and iPads and it has someone else's name on it," says Bauer.

She quickly took to social media. Readers and friends bombarded the books with negative reviews and the books were taken down, but not before all of them had ranked into the top 300 e-books list on Amazon. A few weeks later, eight more books appeared under a different author's name. All became top sellers in the Kindle store. Bauer took to Twitter and Facebook once again, and once again the books were taken down.

After complaining to Amazon she was provided with the names and contact information of the publishers. In both instances the names of the authors were likely pen names as the payments were made out to different names altogether. While the first thief was located in San Diego, the second was in Thailand. Pen names aside, the names the checks were made out to were likely aliases as well.

All attempts to reach either thief for this article were stymied, as the numbers provided by Amazon to Bauer was no longer in service.

In this case, Amazon refunded buyers' money for the unlawful books and took the titles down. The Public Relations and Kindle Direct Publishing teams took the time to contact Bauer and speak with her about her concerns. They informed her they were taking steps to better intercept such books. Bauer feels there was still more they should have done.

"They refused to pay me the money that was made off of my work or repossess the stolen work. If I felt that I was deserved compensation - which I did - they just told me to contact the original seller and they provided me their information," explains Bauer.

Of course, this seems to ignore the dangerous position that Amazon foists upon the victim. In confronting the thief the victim is not only put in an emotionally and psychologically precarious situation, but they risk putting themselves in danger if the thief manages to glean more information through interaction - such as e-mail addresses, IP addresses, mailing addressed, and personal phone numbers.

The problem at hand is that blogs occupy a nebulous space when it comes to copyright and trademark law.

"The first thing a blog should do is have a notice of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) protection in order to better protect oneself and make a note that the information is owned," explains Mark Leonard, an intellectual property lawyer. "Having a DCMA claim/contact on a website's terms of use can be combined with a privacy policy to ensure you can make a claim of infringement," explains Leonard.

Sadly, this only works within the United States. In the case of thief who was located in San Diego, California, Bauer could have had a case. Against the one in Thailand? Not so much.

"Outside the United States, copyright theft is a whole different ballgame," says Leonard.

In the United States, if a website owner is informed that they are hosting stolen, copyrighted material it is up to them to remove the content or face being charged of contributing copyright infringement, which can lead to fines of $75,000-$150,000 per infringement if found guilty and depending on the level of egregiousness. The guilty party may also have to pay the other party's legal fees, as well.

However, Leonard explains that most of this legal action will fall on the victim's shoulder. Only rarely does a district attorney get involved in copyright law and usually only when a major piracy ring is involved.

In many cases, an individual may only be entitled to actual damages or loss of income, which can be difficult to prove.

This is compounded by the fact that the people creating shady e-books can quickly disappear. Even when banned by the online distributor it can be simple to create a new account and identity before selling again.

A copyright does offer protection, but copyrighting for blogs can be difficult and costly. A blogger can register a blog with a copyright for $35 that includes all existing content. However, each new post is considered new content, and therefore the blogger would have to re-register the blog and pay the $35 fee with the government after every post. Magazines and newspapers have special procedures established that ensure copyright protection with each new issue, but this doesn't apply to blogs as blogs don't meet certain regulations.

"If a blogger wants to take legal action and contact copyright infringement authorities or sue, then the blogger needs to have the existing and recent registered copyright," says Leonard.

This obviously places the blogger in a fiscal conundrum by having to pay a fee after every post for proper protection. The blogger then has to be able to contact any content theives.

"For bloggers all bets are off," sighs Leonard.

Another contributing factor to the problem is that consumers simply aren't aware of the problem and can still access downloaded stolen content. In the end, consumers aren't affected and therefore aren't taking the issue up with distributors.

"Recipes also can't be copyrighted," says Bauer. Headnotes and instructions can be as those are unique texts. Collections of recipes can also be copyrighted. Lists of ingredients, however, cannot. So legally stealing a recipe only requires a few tweaks to the text for the theft to become a unique product in the eyes of copyright law.

"In the end, it all comes down to who has deeper pockets. Most bloggers can't afford to hire a lawyer to sue or even to pay copyright fees, so they just have to deal with it the best they can and on their own," says Bauer.

Amazon responded to inquiry for this article with the following:

"I can tell you that we have processes and systems to detect and remove books that violate copyright or don't improve the customer experience. When an author contacts us directly about copyright issues, we take those inquiries seriously and work quickly to resolve them," Brittany Turner, Public Relations, Amazon.com.

Further questioning as to what the processes or systems in place are, how they work, or inquiries as to the personal safety of copyright victims being told to contact the copyright infringers were unanswered as of the time of publication of this article.

Amazon referred their web page for their procedure for claims of copyright infringement information for further details.

In the end, it falls onto the shoulders of the bloggers to protect themselves.

How to Protect Yourself as a Food Blogger

  • Place a DCMA notice on your blog and provide a means of contact for readers to reach you through.

  • If you can, file a copyright for your blog with the U.S. copyright office (if a U.S. citizen).

  • If you find your content being used without authorization contact the web host and ask them to remove it. If you feel safe doing so contact the author as well. Be professional and cordial. Oftentimes, content theft isn't done maliciously.

  • If they refuse take your case to the public forum: Twitter, Facebook, etc. Bad press and negative reviews can get results quickly.

  • If your content has been turned into an unauthorized book on Amazon or e-book store, contact them immediately. Be sure to provide links to the source of the stolen material to back up your claim.

  • File a trademark registration through a lawyer to protect yourself.

  • If you feel the need to then get a lawyer and take the matter to court.

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