Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hacker Tools to Combat eBook Pirates

Much is discussed about ebook piracy, particularly in the debate about whether it is good or bad for authors and publishers. There's Chuck WendigNeil Gaiman, Seth Godin, my friend Michael Montoure, and others, have all weighed in with controversial opinions.

Yet a practical question remains unanswered, and it's one I took for granted because of my technical background. When it came up at the Stop Thief! Radcon panel, I realized it needs answering, in detail, in a blog post.

The question has two parts: How do you know your work is being pirated and what do you do about it?

This assumes that you have decided you do not want your work pirated. I tend to agree more with the Godins and Gaimans of the world. Piracy is exposure, and exposure is good. Most unauthorized downloads are not lost sales anyway.

But some pirate sites charge money and directly profit from your work. No matter where I stand in this debate on any given day, direct profit on the sales of my book by someone not legally authorized really raises my ire.

And during the panel, Peter Jones, who has a legal background, raised a thought-provoking point. If you do not make some effort to defend your copyright, it becomes more difficult to defend in court against piracy for profit or plagiarism. Specifically noting next to the pirate file that the author has specifically granted distribution permissions to a particular site may help cover your ass. You still need to find and communicate to the pirates to accomplish this.

So I place upon my head the Admiral Hat of Irate Pirate Hate, and will teach you sailors how to man the canons and batten the hatches.

Crow's Nest

First you need to know if someone is pirating your work. You won't be able to find everyone, since some try to hide themselves. But like anyone on the internet, the goal is to be seen, and those will show up in the search engines. If someone else can find your book for free, so can you.

So first thing is to set up a couple of Google Alerts. You should do this anyway for marketing and promotion, so you can understand who's reviewing and buzzing about your book. Google Alerts will email you anytime a new webpage contains the search criteria. Set up alerts for your author name and each title of the books you wish to protect.

If you're concerned about plagiarism, you can alert on the titles of your stories and for specific blocks of text from your story of novel. This will find anyone who has lifted your text whole cloth and is claiming it as their own.

I won't repeat the instructions on how to set up alerts, because they've already been written. You can also do manual searches if you fear Google Alerts is being lazy and not catching anything. I don't think this really happens, but I've learned a healthy mistrust of machines in general.

Thar She Blows!

Google Alerts has done its job. You wake up Monday morning and a shocking email announces your book title has been spied on a site called "UberWarezx.ru". They are not a Smashwords affiliate, and are charging $5.99 for your book. Or their customers pay a monthly fee to use their site. Or the book costs points, and the points cost money. You're hopping mad!

Now that you've spotted your pirate, what should you do?

Protect Yourself from the Clap

First, make sure your anti-virus software is up to date before you click on any of these links or visit any pirate sites. They're not always the cleanest sites. Prepare yourself to kill your browser should anything funny start to happen, like popups, downloads, new tabs, fake alerts that you've just caught a virus, etc. If anything suspicious happens, kill your browser immediately and don't go back. Then start a virus scan. And cross your fingers and pray to the gods.

Fire at the Hull

You should realize how these guys probably work. Don't imagine some gal scanning a physical copy of your book to the internet. Nor should you imagine she's heard of you and hand-picks your book for theft. 

More likely, she has written a script that scours Smashwords or Amazon looking for new titles. The script buys a copy of your book, along with all the other books, and stores them on her hard drive. The pirate has another script that places the files on the website or forum. She have the script wait until you've offered your book for free via a KDP Select promotion.

Next, realize that there are often several sites involved in the storage and linking of your ebook. UberWarzx.ru does not store the file; the website only links to it. Thousands of pirated books (and movies and songs) take up a lot more space and bandwidth than your typical web host is willing to support. 

For this purpose, there are storage companies in the business of storing large files on the internet. They are neutral entities. They don't care what the files are. They only care about how much space they take and how often they're downloaded. So they charge money either to the host of the file or to the person downloading, or both. Usually a downloader can download for free, but must wait 10 seconds or watch an ad or some other annoying trick to get mass-downloaders to pay.

Note that these storage sites actually have lots of legitimate reasons for existing, so do not get angry at them. They can actually be your friends. A great real-world example of this type of site is Megaupload, which was shut down last year by the DOJ because it was a popular distribution point for pirates. Unfortunately  it was also very popular for people storing their own legally-appropriate personal files, and those people lost important, irreplaceable, legitimate files. Imagine if you're a Dropbox user, and the government takes down your files without notice, and won't give them back.

Here's why the storage site is your friend: They don't want to be in the piracy business. They want to be neutral like Switzerland. They want to wash their hands of the mess of knowing what's in all the bits and bytes they store. They are merely the pipes and the reservoir, unconcerned about the type of fluid flowing in and out. At least until you tell them it's your water. Now they know, and chances are they want to stay above the law.

The linking site is your real enemy. The problem is that most linking sites aren't touchable. They're the honey badgers of the internet. They don't give a shit. And neither do their internet providers or their governments. In this example, UberWarezx.ru is located in Russia. (Indicated by the .ru top-level domain(TLD)). Good luck getting a Russian site to take down your work, or getting the Russian police to do anything for you. They will laugh at your letter of legalese.

So the goal is to find the providers in this chain who care. The file storage site may care. So you'll need to do a little digging to find out who that is.

Ready? Click the link to "buy" your book. Or just hover over it and you can see the link in your browser's status bar on the bottom. In this example, you notice it links to another site: BigByteBin.com. A US file storage company. Now you have your leverage. If you can get BigByteBin.com to take your file down, UberWarezx.ru will link to nothing. They can host a fake link to your book all they want.

So go to BigByteBin's main website and investigate. Some have special DMCA forms or an abuse complaint process. At the least, there should be general contact info. BigByteBin probably wants to avoid lawsuits and the Department of Justice, so their Terms of Service (TOS) should have strong language against piracy. Simply follow BigByteBin's procedures for filing a complaint. And that's usually the end of it.

Fire at the Sails

When I had piracy problems, I was lucky enough that the above process actually worked. I complained to two entities. The other was the website host, which is the internet provider that keeps the website (UberWarzx.ru) on a server. 

In my case, even though the domain was located in a country that didn't care about international intellectual property (IP) law, one of the sites associated with the pirate was hosted in a country that did. So I also contacted that host. Between the two, the content got removed.

Here are the technical details of finding a pirate site's web host and their domain provider. All you need is for one of their service providers to care about enforcing their TOS.

First, try to gather as much information about the site as you can, just by poking around the site itself. Go to the "About" page, the "Contact Us" page, and read the fine print at the bottom. Notice where the links point -- do any take you to another domain? Maybe a related domain or company is in the US or Canada or the UK or other major country that cares about IP law. If the domain is a .com, .net, .org, or other generic TLD, these are usually registered in the US and you can contact their domain registrar. They may be in violation of the registrar's TOS.

First, visit whois.net. Enter the domain name. It will tell you who the domain registrar is. You can then visit the registrar site and poke around until you find out how to lodge a complaint. 

Another pro-tip: Most legitimate service providers will accept email at abuse@theirdomain.com. So if you discover the domain is hosted at GoDaddy, you can try sending an email to abuse@godaddy.com. 

Next, lets try to contact their hosting provider. That's who runs the server that hosts the website, and again, if it's in the US (or other country that cares), you're in luck. Here are the technical details:
  1. Ping the server. If you use Windows Vista or 7, click the "Start/Windows" button, and in the "Search Programs" field, type "cmd" and hit enter.
  2. A black window will appear with a prompt. Type "ping <domain name>". Most likely, it will dump out "Reply from:" and a number. That number is called an IP address (no relation to IP law), and looks something like (If this step returns an error, you can use DNS Stuff. Just enter the domain name under "Whois Lookup".)
  3. That IP address is one of the servers owned by the hosting provider. Now you can find the host using the tools at ARIN.net. At the top of that page is "Search Whois". Paste or type the IP address in there. It will return information about the hosting provider.
  4. In that information, there is often a point of contact for "abuse". You may have to click a link or two to find it. If there's not a specific abuse email address, there will be some other email address. Send your complaint to that address, and CC: abuse@domain.com, where domain is the same as the other email address you're sending to.

Scurvy Forums (or putting the "rum" back into forum)

Sometimes a link to your pirated book file will appear on forums. Forums tend to be more US-based and a little more "above board". These are not people trying to profit from your book. They are communities of readers who often understand, on some level, that pirating is wrong. They have reasons. Often, their readers live in countries where Amazon won't sell, or they use devices incompatible with the Kindle format, or they paid $20 for a physical copy and want ebooks as well, or are extremely poor, or they have a grudge against the publishing industry, or they are "collectors" who just like amassing thousands of files they will never actually read and wouldn't have purchased anyway. They often respect authors, and sincerely do not wish to deprive the author of gain.

Usually these forums have a legitimate path for copyright complaints. Just follow their instructions and they will gladly remove your book. Or you can post a reply in the forum itself, under the link to your book, stating your wishes. Maybe you want to leave the link up but want to declare yourself the rightful owner of copyright, directing people to your website or to a donation page. Maybe you want to request reviews in exchange for the book. As long as you're polite, the members of these forums seem to return the favor. At least in my limited experience.


Nothing can help you combat content on BitTorrent. The whole point is to distribute files in ways that no one can ever stop. And since BitTorrent searches don't appear in Google, you have to specifically go looking. I have not yet found my book being torrented. I'm simply not popular enough. If you end up on Pirate Bay, take home the consolation prize: your writing is wanted. 

Be careful of using Torrent search pages like The Pirate Bay. Notice I'm not linking directly to them. That's because their advertisers often slip malware into the ads and you could quickly end up with a virus. This is not mere paranoia -- I speak from experience. Oddly, the torrent files themselves tend to be malware-free. Anyway, sometimes pirates get what they pay for.

Messages in Bottles

I talk alot about sending messages to providers and posting on forums. The content of your message is as important as anything else I've said. 

Always be professional and gracious. If you want people to respect you as a professional, then act like one. You represent your brand and must protect your reputation, even while battling pirates. Relax, calm down, don't take piracy personally, and if you do, keep your feelings out of the discussion. I've seen authors on forums acting like twits. They forget that pirates are potential customers. And guess what? Those words will show up in search engines just like everything else you say online.

Whether you're posting on a pirate forum or contacting a hosting provider, everything is business. Be firm but not angry. This is not the place for political rants about piracy or the publishing business. Go straight to the point. State the facts, state what you want, and leave it at that.

And try to include as many facts as you have, including all this data you've so painstakingly researched: All the domains, IP Addresses, links to the page that includes your pirated work, etc.

I am not a lawyer, so if you feel you need legal advice about the words you use, please contact a real lawyer. My background is working in Information Technology where various kinds of internet abuse would come to my attention and require reporting. I'm just transferring that format into my new career, and there may be legal points I'm not aware of.

That said, here are some non-lawyer-approved writing samples.

To a domain registrar, hosting, storage, or other provider:
It has come to my attention that your customer, hosted at MadPropsBookPiracy.com, is hosting a copy of my copyrighted book, "Emerald City Dreamer", without my permission. This may be in violation of your Terms of Service, and may also be violating the DMCA and US copyright law. Please investigate this matter. At a minimum, I would like my copyrighted content removed. I have included the links to the offending pages, the offending files, and the customer information as it is stated on WHOIS. Thank you for your time.
If emailing the site owner or posting to the forum, I might give it a more personal spin but keep it professional. What you say depends greatly on whether you want the content removed, or if you want it left up but with some consideration and legal caveats.
My copyrighted book, "Emerald City Dreamer" appears on your site for free download. I worked very hard to write this novel. As I wish to be compensated for my hard work, I would greatly appreciate it if you remove the link and direct your site visitors to purchase my book on Amazon. I do not wish to take legal action, but will pursue it if needed.
This is a link to my book, "Emerald City Dreamer", which I worked very hard to write. Normally, I would ask you to remove this book, as I hold the copyright. However, I understand some people, for various reasons, are unable to purchase the Kindle version, and I would like to allow this site to keep the file up for now. If you download Emerald City Dreamer, please consider leaving me an honest review on Amazon or on your blog, and tell your friends about me. If you enjoy the read, you may also donate on my page at www.lunalindsey.com.

Donation Booty

People will always find ways to read your book without paying. If they're not pirating it, they're reading it on loan from friends or the library. Or they're buying books used, like I've done most of my life. While used bookstores have seen a lot of money from me, sadly my favorite authors never see royalties from it.

As the internet changes how we distribute and compensate for content, donations become a viable channel for giving money to your content providers. Consider including a donation button on your blog for anyone who feels like giving you money. You can ask those who pirate your book, or like your blog, or who borrowed or bought your book used, to send you a dollar or two, no questions asked.

Headed to Harbor

No matter where you stand on piracy, landlubber, you should now be better equipped. So splice the mainbrace and fair winds to ye!

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