How often do you worry about your paycheck getting stolen? Probably not too often, because we have strong laws that deter and punish theft of money, banking systems in place to protect you and track down the thief, and law enforcement that will step in to help.
But authors don’t have this security when their royalties are siphoned off by e-book pirates. Day after day, authors find stolen copies of their books on multiple platforms and pirate websites, and there is nothing they can do about it. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the law that regulates copyright liability on the internet, allows authors, publishers, and copyright holders to send takedown notices in response to copyright infringement. Pirate sites, however, whose operations are usually based outside the U.S., ignore the takedown notices, and companies that provide online services in the U.S. (such as web hosting services, search engines, social media sites, and user-generated content sites like YouTube) take down only the e-books posted at the specific URLs listed in a given notice, leaving other pirated copies online and doing little to prevent new ones from being posted, even by the same users. As a result, piracy flourishes unabated, diverting income from authors’ pockets to those of pirates.
Federal copyright lawsuits can be brought against those who fail to comply with takedown notices or are otherwise ineligible for the DMCA safe harbors, but they are expensive, complicated cases, requiring sophisticated counsel with the know-how and tools to sue bad actors whose identities and locations are often obscure. Very few authors have the means to bring these suits. And a successful lawsuit does not always shut down the pirate operations, as we saw in Elsevier’s lawsuit against LibGen and SciHub. Despite a $15 million judgment, they remain among the top piracy sites in the world and are widely used by U.S. students and others to download books for free.
In July, the Authors Guild organized a lawsuit against a notorious Ukraine-based network of piracy sites called Kiss Library. The named plaintiffs in the suit are 12 Authors Guild members, as well as Amazon Publishing and Penguin Random House, whose generous financial support made the lawsuit possible. Kiss Library, which operates Kissly.net, Libly.net, Cheap-Library.com, and other websites, illegally sells pirated e-books at very cheap prices. Its sites were designed to look like legitimate online bookstores, complete with elaborate descriptions of how they help authors, while they actually exploit authors by drawing unwary readers away from legitimate, royalty-earning copies. Going into the lawsuit, we were fully aware of the costs and challenges, including the improbability of getting restitution for authors, let alone delivering sturdy consequences for the sites’ operators. Our primary goals were simple: to shut down the criminal enterprise and to raise awareness about the challenges that authors and publishers face in combating rampant online piracy.
Our lawsuit against Kiss Library illustrates the importance of cooperation from third parties in fighting piracy, particularly that of internet service providers (ISPs), payment processing services, and other utilities that pirate sites rely on to operate. An earlier temporary restraining order directed domain registrars to disable Kiss Library’s domains, taking the sites offline, and ordered payment processors Kiss Library used to freeze their assets. Two weeks ago, the court converted the restraining order into a preliminary injunction, allowing our lawyers to obtain and investigate records relating to the individuals involved in operating the site from their ISPs. Additional sites that were distributing pirated comics and cartoons as part of the larger Kiss Library scheme have also been identified and disabled as a result of discovery and the injunction.
It turns out that an awful lot of e-book piracy could be abated if courts applied the DMCA as Congress originally intended: to incentivize ISPs, search engines, web hosting providers, and other online services to actually cooperate with copyright owners by disabling access to known pirate sites and preventing uploads of content that has been identified as pirated. But courts have interpreted this law in a way that gives these services safe harbor for doing little besides removing individual posts in response to specific takedown requests, allowing them to leave other obviously pirated copies on their services and new copies to be immediately posted to replace those that were taken down. As a result, the publishing industry continues to endure billions in lost sales each year, and millions in royalties are robbed from authors. The Authors Guild has been lobbying for reforms to the DMCA that would realign it with Congress’s goals.
We need a law that incentivizes search engines, ISPs, and the like to act rather than sit back and profit from piracy. It’s about time we changed the way we regulate online activity to align with our most basic laws and ethics.
Mary Rasenberger is the CEO of the Authors Guild.