This is going to be a long essay and possibly a rambling one. Bear with me, and fasten your seatbelts.
As most of you know, another "author" has been accused of copyright infringement. As of the time I begin the post, 24 books and/or authors have been tagged as having material -- lines, paragraphs, plot elements -- lifted by Brazilian lawyer and would-be romance novelist Cristiane Serruya. The list began with Courtney Milan and has spread,
(Apologies for crappy screen shot,)
Cristiane Serruya confessed (?) that she had purchased the books from Fiverr ghostwriters and blamed them for the infringements. According to a Courtney Milan blogpost, two or perhaps three of the ghost writers contacted her and said that Serruya asked them to flesh out texts she gave them, texts that may have been snippets taken from other books.
The final determination of what Serruya and her ghosts actually did is far less important than the fact that this scheme has been going on for years. Goodreads shows Serruya's books have been around since at least 2012.
How did Serruya get away with it all this long? Why did no one else notice these copied passages?
It's true that the readers of romance are both voracious and loyal -- and knowledgeable. We reread our favorites. We talk endlessly about books and share both our favorites and our, well, not-favorites. We read and review . . . and we remember.
But for six years, no one noticed copied material in any of Serruya's many books?
The world of indie publishing and especially Amazon indie publishing has come in for some well deserved criticism. Copyright infringement has been around almost since Kindle launched. One of my first discoveries when I learned Kindle Direct Publishing existed was a bunch of infringed books that showed up with bizarre new titles and cover art. I don't even remember how I figured out they were stolen, but they were, and the infringers were caught and the books were taken down. This was in 2012.
Amazon's "safe harbor" status under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") basically means they are not responsible for vetting material that is published on their site. Amazon isn't the infringement police. When you upload a file, you certify that you have the rights to publish it, and that's all there is. Amazon does not check to see if you're honest.
Many people suggest Amazon should put every new Kindle document through a plagiarism detecting software. One problem with this is that copied content may be perfectly legal, whether it's an attributed passage quoted in a non-fiction book or a republished novel by the author using either a different pseudonym or their own name after previously using a pseudonym.
Amazon, however, is only a platform for publishing, not an actual publisher, when it comes to KDP. The burden therefore falls to the KDP author to declare the work is legally theirs to publish, or to the infringed/plagiarized author to discover and issue a DMCA takedown notice.
There have been copyright infringement scandals in the past. The Janet Dailey/Nora Roberts is probably the best known simply because the authors involved were so well known. I don't know how much material was copied. A few lines? A plot thread? I don't know. I've never read the books involved to compare the contents.
Is it important? Yes, it is. Copying a few lines, regardless how distinctive, is probably not going to reach lawsuit level. Lifting several long passages verbatim is going to be more problematic. Lifting numerous passages verbatim or even slightly altered is going to be very dangerous, and stealing an entire plot line is beyond question.
That last sentence describes what Sylvie F. Sommerfield did to Jan Westcott's The Hepburn in 1990. I'm briefly recapping that history to have everything in one thread.
Sommerfield's book Fires of Surrender was published by Zebra, with no one in the editorial department recognizing that the primary plot line and a huge number of individual lines were taken from Jan Westcott's The Hepburn. Westcott's novel was among those many book club editions my dad had bought in the 1950s; I had read it right about the same time I read Lord Johnnie and The Highland Hawk and Lord Vanity and The Saracen Blade, among so many others. I had read it numerous times, and it only took a quick flip through the opening pages of Sommerfield's book for me to recognize the extent of the theft.
Sommerfield at first claimed her research assistant had done it. The research assistant brought interesting details to Sommerfield, who then worked them into her own plot. The tale then morphed to the research assistant helped with the writing of the book. The next version was that Sommerfield was under extreme deadline and personal financial pressure and hired an assistant, someone she may or may not have known but who expressed a desire to be a romance novelist. Sommerfield ended up letting this person effectively "ghost" the novel, which then turned out to be plagiarized. Maybe Sommerfield did it herself, maybe not. I don't know. I suspect she was surprised that anyone recognized a book that had been published almost 40 years before, and even more surprised that Jan Westcott was still alive.
All I ever knew was that some settlement was reached between Zebra and Westcott; there was never any question that Fires of Surrender infringed. The amount of copying was just too extensive.
Whether Serruya's copyings are sufficient for a claim of infringement, I don't know. I managed to get samples of most of her Kindle books before they were taken down, as well as a couple titles that were free. I'm not well enough read in historical romance over the past, say, 15 years to be able to recognize what passages had been stolen. It also appears that Serruya took passages from historical romances and tried to drop them into contemporary stories. I don't read a lot of contemporary romance, and not the type that Serruya published -- billionaires, kings, etc.
Other readers and writers did recognize the passages, and lots of them. But that has to raise the question again: Why didn't anyone see them before now? Serruya's books have been out there since 2012!! They have hundreds of reviews on Goodreads, and did have hundreds on Amazon until the books were removed.
How can romance novels with hundreds of reviews not be discovered to be infringing on extremely well-known authors?
Someone on Twitter -- I should have grabbed a screenshot but didn't and now I don't know who tweeted it, but if I find it again I'll plug it in here -- suggested that plagiarism and infringement are rife in the indie publishing community, and someone then replied that while that may be at least partly true, it's the readers who are getting ripped off.
Well, hello, if romance readers are so loyal and so knowledgeable, why did Serruya continue to do this for six years or more?
I think the only reason she got away with it is because she wasn't in fact being read by real romance readers. Was she buying all those reviews from fiverr? Well, that's the first thing that popped into my mind.
I was in a hurry to acquire as much information Tuesday morning as I could, so I didn't check the Amazon stats on her books. I did get one, but only because the categories were inappropriate, in my opinion.
This was for one of her From the Baroness's Diary installments.
She apparently got lifetime bestselling author status by buying her way into an anthology that landed on the USA Today list. Was her contribution also filled with passages copied from other books, other real writers? I don't know. Maybe no one read her story, even though they bought it.
I tried to read a couple of the samples I downloaded this morning, but they just weren't my thing. Was the writing bad? No, not really, or at least I don't think so. Some were first person, present tense, which I really can't stand at all. One seemed to be a middle installment of a series, so I felt lost on the history of the scene set in front of me. Overall, however, I wasn't grabbed by anything, and that may in part be because I already knew about the accusations and couldn't set that aside while I read.
But two things came to mind as the Twitter discussion progressed.
One was that negative reviews are so strongly discouraged in Romancelandia in general but especially in indie- and self-publishing Romancelandia. Amazon, as a commercial site, has Federal Trade Commission guidelines they have to enforce regarding producers of competing products, so authors of similar books can't post negative reviews. And no one can issue a DMCA takedown notice except the actual holder of the copyright. So many of the reviewers and bloggers only post positive reviews, either because they don't read books they don't like or because they want the free ARCs to keep coming. There's a very strong bias in favor of good reviews, to the exclusion of more honest, more critical reviews.
The second thing that came to mind was another bias, this one in favor of better known, more financially successful, traditionally published authors. Yet one of the most blatant infringements, the Sommerfield book, was done by a bestselling, traditionally published author whose editors never caught it!
Plagiarism is plagiarism. Copyright infringement is copyright infringement. I don't care how big a name the infringer or the infringed is; it's wrong. And it needs to be treated equally regardless how big are the names involved. Sadly, if an author only sells 1,000 copies of her digital book, the chances that someone will recognize passages from that book when they're copied into another are mathematically slim.
Writers also need to educate themselves on what is and what isn't infringement. One of my writing buddies from the early 1990s had to respond to a charge of infringement because a reader complained to her publisher that there seemed to be too much resemblance between her book . . . and the recently published Outlander. About the only similarity was that both books were set in Scotland, but my friend still had to provide a statement to that effect.
Verbatim copying is verbatim copying. Is it also copyright infringement? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes maybe, sometimes it depends. If you think your work has been infringed, you need to speak with a competent intellectual property lawyer. Don't rely on friends or strangers on the internet. Also, don't be surprised if the lawyer tells you there's nothing you can do about it. Maybe the passage copied was too short to matter. Maybe the best you can hope for is that the infringer rewrites it. Maybe bad publicity will force them to take it down.
We brag about the power of Romancelandia and the millions of voracious readers, but there's a downside most people don't take into consideration. Not all readers are active on social media. Not all readers recognize the difference between traditionally published books that have gone through a commercial editing process and author-published books that are uploaded to a digital platform as first drafts.
If you read some of the reviews on Amazon, you'll still see readers wondering how a book with numerous typographical errors ever got published. These readers probably - almost certainly - don't understand that someone can write a book and immediately upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing.
The poor quality of so many author-published books has turned many romance readers away from "indie" books. You really can't blame them. And when you throw in the scandals of the Kindle Unlimited click farms and stuffed books, the problem becomes worse.
Is there then a resulting romance readership that doesn't understand what plagiarism and copyright infringement are? Are they economically restricted to reading more of the free and lower-priced Kindle books and therefore unfamiliar with the writings of authors whose traditionally-published digital editions cost $7.99 (US) and up? Does that mean one group of readers is reading the less-expensive author-published material that contains infringed material, while another group is reading the higher-priced books that are being infringed? Is the intersection of those groups too small to catch the thieves?
Is that what happened with Cristiane Serruya? Did she get away with her infringing because the people who read her books had never read Courtney Milan or Loretta Chase? (I should note here that some of Serruya's books were priced well above the usual $2.99 for author-published Kindle books.)
Are readers led to believe the five-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and various blogs because that's all there is? If we look at some of the average, ordinary not-by-Nora-Roberts romance novels, the ratings still skew high. There are generally far fewer 2- and 1-star ratings than 4- and 5-star. Is that because authors are still buying reviews? Is that because reviewers are still afraid to post critical reviews due to threats of author retaliation? Is that because bloggers are more concerned with keeping the flow of free ARCs coming and less concerned with giving readers an honest assessment?
Is it because readers no longer know what good writing looks like?
Is that the real reason someone like Cristiane Serruya got away with her scam for so long?
The list of books and authors from whom she and her alleged ghostwriters stole continues to grow, but we may never know the full extent of the thievery. How many less-well-known authors did she/they steal from? Does anyone care? Her books are gone from Amazon, so we can't check them. And who has the money and time to invest in reading them all anyway?
What Romancelandia needs is more critical reviewers who aren't afraid to call out the bad writing, so more readers learn the difference and so more authors learn they can't get away with publishing crap. Maybe then more readers will be able to read across the full spectrum of the romance genre and make it more difficult for the scam artists to copy and paste undetected.
Sylvie Sommerfield's literary theft was caught quickly; Cassie Edwards' wasn't. Cristiane Serruya's went on for years. Nora Roberts didn't hesitate to take action against Janet Dailey; Rachel Ann Nunes had to sue her plagiarist and it took four years to reach a settlement.
Infringing and plagiarizing hurt authors both emotionally and professionally, regardless how big a name they are. It's often much harder to detect the theft if the author isn't well known but that doesn't mean it's any less harmful.
Infringing and plagiarizing hurt readers, too. Readers deserve an honest read, deserve to know that the author did the work herself.
Infringing and plagiarizing hurt the industry as well. Romance fiction is still under attack after almost half a century dominating the publishing scene.
Unfortunately, infringing and plagiarizing are risks all writers take when they publish. Whether it's a pirating site that sells our books without giving us a dime or a book stuffer who crams our book into their "anthology" to get more Kindle Unlimited page reads or a Fiverr "ghost" who lifts a scene here and a scene there and pastes it all together with new names and a different POV, it's all theft. And we're all vulnerable. There's no foolproof protection against it. Registering a copyright entitles the infringed author to additional damages, but it doesn't prevent the theft in the first place.
The writing business, and perhaps especially the romance writing business, is fraught with perils. Most of us are women and there's still a social pressure on women to be more helpful, more supportive. Romance Writers of America -- perhaps the largest professional "participation trophy" organization in the world -- encourages this attitude without very much acknowledgement of the backstabbing and abuse it engenders.
Several months ago, I wrote about just a small portion of the back stabbing I experienced through RWA. I realized through today's rereading of that post just how often I'd essentially set myself up to be abused. And the same thing had happened with my artists' group. Why? Because I wanted to help others, and because I trusted them to appreciate both me and whatever little bit of help I was able to give them. Oh, sure, I'm always painted as the mean one, the jealous one, the destroying angel who kills precious snowflake writers' careers. But that's not true. As bitterly as I've raged against the very real flesh and blood demons, I'm still going to be out there looking for good writing, looking to help writers and artists. And I'm probably going to end up being hurt. A hurt nobody.
It comes with the territory. There are no guarantees of success. There are no guarantees of good reviews or good sales of either my books or my art. There is only the opportunity to try.
Stealing isn't trying. Stealing is stealing. Whether the victim is A Big Name Author or a newby who just uploaded her first KDP romance novel, stealing is stealing. Copyright infringement is a crime of willful, knowing deception. There should be no forgiveness.