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ebook piracy
Ali Luke

Ebook Piracy: How Can You Protect Your Ebook?

Last updated: January 10, 2023

You’ve spent months, maybe years, working on your ebook. You’ve launched it, with great excitement, to the world. You’ve made some sales … though perhaps not quite so many as you’d have liked.

One day, you Google your ebook’s title, hoping you might find some reviews or tweets about it. But to your horror, you find websites offering your ebook for free.

Your ebook has been pirated. All your hard work is being given away for free on a dodgy-looking website.

It’s an upsetting moment for any author. Your first response, understandably, is probably to figure out how you can stop the pirates. You may well be worried that the listing you’ve found is just the tip of the iceberg.

So what can you do about it? (And do you even need to do anything at all?) Beyond learning how to sell ebooks online, here’s everything you need to know about how to protect your ebook.

What Is Ebook Piracy?

Ebook piracy is when your ebook is made available without your permission.

This can take several different forms:

  • Someone buys your ebook then shares it with their friends or contacts. This may be done innocently (they don’t realize they shouldn’t share it) or deliberately.
  • Your ebook has been uploaded to a website for other people to download. This is what a lot of authors think of when they think of ebook piracy. There are hundreds of these websites out there – though (as we’ll see later!) they may often claim to have an ebook available when they actually don’t.
  • Your ebook is being sold by someone else … without your permission. They’re taking all the money from it. This is not so common as the other forms of piracy, but it’s certainly been known to happen.

Other Types of Ebook Theft

A related problem is people stealing your work and passing it off as their own. This isn’t what most people call “piracy” but it can be very damaging. It’s also against the law, as it’s an infringement of your copyright.

Another possibility is that someone takes part of your work and incorporates it into their own, without your permission and without acknowledging you as the author. This is plagiarism.

In either of these cases, you do have legal protections. You may find, though, that you don’t need to go that far. Simply telling people to stop and threatening legal action could be enough.

Fighting Ebook Piracy With DRM (Digital Rights Management)

So what can you do about ebook piracy?

One popular solution is to use DRM (Digital Rights Management) tools to protect your files. There are a variety of ways this can be done, such as by restricting users from sharing or forwarding your ebook.

This can certainly deter piracy. It’s particularly effective in stopping people from buying your ebook and forwarding it on to friends.

Drawbacks of DRM

Sadly, DRM isn’t bulletproof. Determined pirates will be able to get around it one way or another. However well-protected your ebook is, there’s nothing that can stop someone from opening it up on one device and retyping it onto another. Of course, that would be a time-consuming process – so most pirates simply wouldn’t bother.

Another big problem with DRM is that it can make life harder for your readers – and there are organizations that oppose DRM for this reason, such as Defective By Design. Legitimate customers who’ve paid for your ebook may find it more difficult to access and read it in the ways they want to. That’s not something you want, as it could easily put them off buying from you in the future.

Hugh Howey, a bestselling self-published science-fiction author, explains his attitude to DRM like this:

I wanted it to be easy as hell for other people to own my stuff. That meant never putting DRM on my e-books. This is the digital rights management protection that makes it difficult to convert my books, copy them around, all that stuff. I wanted to reward the buyer rather than worry about the pirate.

Using Social DRM

Social DRM is a process where the customer’s ebook is stamped or watermarked with details such as the customer’s email address and date of purchase. This can be done for PDF files. It doesn’t negatively affect the customer, and it can discourage piracy (as it would be obvious who’s shared the file).

You can find out about PDF stamping here. It’s important to note that this process only works on PDF files. Also, it won’t currently work if the PDF is over 250MB, or if it’s contained in a ZIP file.

How Else Can I Protect My Work?

One way to easily make piracy harder – again, without affecting customers negatively – is to limit how many times your ebook can be downloaded by a customer.

This prevents people from sharing their download link with others.

It’s best practice to allow people to download the ebook at least three times. If you only let them download it once, that could cause problems if they lose the downloaded file, or if they want to download it onto several different devices (instead of copying it across).

A good compromise between meeting the reader’s needs and preventing piracy is to set a limit of 5 downloads. This is the default when using Payhip.

If a legitimate customer does run out of downloads, you can reset the download limit for them.


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What to Do if Someone Pirates Your Ebook

So what can you do if someone’s giving away your ebook, depriving you of any revenue?

If someone pirates your work, you can:

  • Contact them (if their site has contact details). In some cases, simply asking the pirate to take down your ebook may be enough. They may not want the hassle of dealing with you any further.
  • Issue a DMCA notice to the web hosting company (you can find this through DMCA is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. There’s no set formula for a DMCA takedown notice, but it does need to include certain elements.

You can find some email templates to use in this Google Doc, both for contacting the pirates themselves, and for issuing the DMCA notice.

How to Know if Your Ebook is Being Pirated

Occasionally, authors find out about a pirated ebook because a concerned reader emails to let them know.

But most piracy won’t be reported to you. If you want to know if your ebook is being pirated, you could:

1. Search for your book on Google

Type the title of your book along with the word “download” into Google and see what comes up. You may find sites that have – or claim to have! – your book available.

Be careful what you click on, though, and make sure you have good anti-virus software installed and active to protect you. Many pirate sites will be full of dubious ads, or even worse.

2. Set up Google Alerts

You can set up Google Alerts to find out when you and your book are mentioned online. This is a great way to keep on top of things like new reviews or discussions of your work – and it can also let you find out whether your book is being pirated.

3. Use tools like works in a similar way to Google Alerts. It has advanced features like the ability to get daily recaps, and you can also get emails if there’s a sudden rush of mentions of your name or book title.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions that readers often have about book piracy:

Do I Need to Copyright My Ebook?

No. In most countries, your ebook is automatically copyrighted as soon as you’ve written it. You don’t need to do anything to copyright it. However, you can create ebook copyright notice at the start or end of your ebook if you’d like to.

A site is listing my ebook for download … but do they really have it?

In most cases, probably not! A lot of sites will list ebooks for free download, but they don’t really have them. Instead, as Dave Chesson explains, they’re trying to get people to pay for a subscription to their site … or they’re trying to spread malware and viruses.

Is it Worth Spending My Time Fighting Piracy?

If you’re a new author … probably not. You could spend a huge amount of time trying to stamp out piracy, even though it might not be affecting your book sales at all.

As this article from the Alliance of Independent Authors explains:

“Chasing down pirates that most likely aren’t infringing on your copyright or cutting into your sales is wasteful. That’s time and effort better spent on writing, editing, refining your marketing, polishing your book descriptions, or a hundred other activities that contribute in a more meaningful way to your prosperity.”

The one time when it does make sense to tackle the piracy is when it’s dominating search results. If the pirates’ websites are ranking very prominently on Google, in cases like this one Tim Grahl shares, then you’ll want to take action:

“My author friend found himself in a situation where the #3 result on Google for the title of his book was a foreign site where you could download the PDF of the book for free.”

Should I Be Worried About Ebook Piracy?

Again, if you’re a new author, probably not. Obscurity is a much bigger risk for most authors. If people don’t know your books exist, they can’t buy them.

Some people even think that piracy can be helpful to authors, because it gets your books into the hands of more people … some of whom may become paying readers.

If you’re an established author, though, you may find that piracy is harming your book sales. YA author Maggie Stiefvater shared her experience of that on her Facebook page, explaining how the print sales of the third book in her series did much better than the ebook sales, and how the piracy harmed the next book in the series:

Then [the publisher] told me that they were cutting the print run of The Raven King to less than half of the print run for Blue Lily, Lily Blue. No hard feelings, understand, they told me, it’s just that the sales for Blue Lily didn’t justify printing any more copies.

Maggie Stiefvater was able to show that the piracy was harming sales by releasing their own fake pirated version of the fourth book, which was just the first four chapters repeated. The print run sold out, with the ebook sales skyrocketing too (until real copies of the ebook started getting pirated).

Author Elizabeth Lennox related a similar experience with piracy resulting in a noticeable drop in sales:

At one point, I saw that my sales had been cut in half. I was shocked. We couldn’t figure out what was going on until my husband told me that he’d found my books on pirate sites. Then we hired a lawyer to send takedown notices, and the next day the sales started to climb back up.

Ultimately, book piracy isn’t going away. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth fighting it or not. For most first time authors, it’s going to make more sense to focus your time instead on marketing your ebook … or writing the next one.

If you’re seeing a distinct drop in sales, though, or if the piracy sites are ranking very highly on Google for your book’s name or your author name, then it’s time to take action. Issuing DMCA notices is the best way to tackle the problem: remember, you can find out easy-to-use templates in this Google doc.


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