On SmartphoneA few years ago I was discussing a great book I’d read with a friend of mine, highly encouraging her to read it. It had been on the New York Times bestseller list in 1996, but let’s face it: some books are great regardless of their initial release dates.

My friend turned to her mobile device, entered only a few keystrokes and the book instantly appeared on her screen.

“How did you do that so quickly?” I asked.

She explained that she entered “pdf” followed by the book title in a Google search engine (though any search engine would do). Up popped a website where the book had been converted to a PDF file, and with one click, she was able to read it for free in its entirety.

As you can imagine, I saw every color of the rainbow with this revelation. Authors, publishers and book stores (online or brick-and-mortar) do not get paid when a book is given away for free. And any book released over the last fifty years should be assumed to be copyrighted, unless the copyright holder has allowed it to lapse.

Later, I got out my iPad and began searching for my own book titles, followed by “pdf” in the search box. Sure enough, there were my earliest works – works that are still copyrighted, I hold the copyright, and yet there they were free for the taking.

Before I began writing full-time, I worked in the computer field. My specialties were computer crimes and computer intelligence. So I began investigating.

It didn’t take long before I discovered that 100% of the websites offering my books for free were located in Russia, the Eastern Bloc (particularly Ukraine), China and other countries that do not abide by U.S. laws. But that was not all that I found.

I discovered each of the files I investigated contained malicious software code – viruses, worms, trojans and bots.

Eaten by a Bigger FishThe viruses could wreak havoc with any computer downloading the file. It can easily destroy information, overwrite legitimate files with malicious files, and propagate itself continuously, eventually making the computer unusable.

The worms were similar to the viruses, but they latched onto other legitimate software, extracting information from the software – information you don’t want to share, such as user names and passwords and personal data.

The PDF files themselves are trojans. Trojans get their name from the method the Greeks used to infiltrate Troy’s defenses – by delivering a trojan horse that contained warriors inside. The file looks legitimate – it appears to be an exact copy of a book, page by page – but it contains malicious software that, while the reader is reading away, it is busy extracting files, looking for passwords and personal data, and uploading the information to host computers halfway around the world.

In other words, it is stealing your identity, bit by bit.

The fourth malicious software I detected were bots. Bots got their name from robots, morphed into webbots, and finally simply called bots. They perform functions that humans normally would, but at lightning speed. For example, it could be labor intensive for a person to try and infiltrate another’s computer and copy each of their email addresses out of their address books. But with a program to do it for them, while the reader is reading away, the bot is working in the background to extract each of the website addresses, which in turn serves as a server to send spam around the world. It can take mere seconds to accomplish.

Some of the files contained all four types of malicious software.

Are there really legitimate websites that allow a person to download a book for free, or are they all frauds?

There are legitimate websites. Before using a website, and most particularly before clicking on a link or downloading a file, check to see where the website is registered. It’s a dead giveaway that the site is not legitimate if it’s offering free books by U.S. authors out of Ukraine or Russia. In one instance, I even found my books offered for free out of Australia – but the website was linked to others in China.

Second, look at the link to download it. A common marketing strategy is to list an ebook for free or for a deeply discounted price with the Buy link going to amazon, Barnes and Noble or another reputable site. These are legitimate sales. Sites that offer free and discounted books with links to legitimate online retailers include Book Bub, Freebooksy, Book Brag and Bargain Booksy, among others.

Charles Dickens BooksThird, look at the date the book was originally released. There are some books that are considered classics that were never copyrighted and are now in the public domain. In the United States, any work published prior to 1923 is considered in the public domain. If the author and/or publisher is located outside the United States, you must refer to that country’s copyright law. A leader in advocating for international copyright laws was Charles Dickens, whose books were copyrighted in Europe at a time when the United States did not honor European copyrights—so his books were available in the USA without payment to Dickens or his publisher.

If the work was published between 1923 and 1963, the copyright had to be renewed every 28 years (U.S. law). A book that has had continued protection would list each of the copyright dates in the front matter. Each book had to contain the proper copyright notice and the copyright holder had to formally register it.

From 1964 through 1989, copyrighted books were deemed protected into the infinite future – meaning once it was copyrighted, it would always be considered copyrighted. The copyright holder had to complete formal copyright paperwork and the copyright notice had to be included in each book.

However, after March 1, 1989, copyright laws changed in the United States. Once the author puts pen to paper (or types the document), it is considered copyrighted. It does not need a formal copyright notice nor does it require formal copyright paperwork, though both are recommended to prevent the assumption that it is in the public domain. Works published after this date are copyrighted and protected throughout the life of the copyright holder (deemed to be the author unless otherwise noted) plus 70 years.

What does all this mean to you, the author?

It means if readers are downloading a free PDF copy of your book from an unknown source through the Internet, chances are the website is violating copyright laws – unless the book is considered in the public domain – meaning it was never copyrighted, is an old book whose copyright has expired, and was certainly released prior to 1964.

Will your sales increase if these sites are taken down?

Shocking news This is an intriguing question. Several of the largest publishers have aggressively pursued websites offering pirated books and surprisingly, a study conducted in 2016 by the University of Warsaw shows that even after pirated books are removed from the Internet, it does not have any effect on book sales. In other words, if a reader can’t get the pirated book, they are unlikely to purchase it from a legitimate bookseller or retailer.

Here are some statistics from Digimarc about who is doing the pirating: 47% are between the ages of 30 to 44. 41% are between 18 and 29. And 13% are 45 or older. Additionally, people downloading illegal copies can actually afford to purchase them legitimately—their incomes are between $60K and $99K.

What can an author do?

FBI LogoIf you find your book has been pirated and you are traditionally published, notify your publisher immediately. You should note the exact URL where your book is located so the publisher can easily verify whether it is indeed pirated.

If you are independently published, check out the FBI’s tips here: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/white-collar-crime/piracy-ip-theft along with the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (NIPRCC): https://www.iprcenter.gov/.