SOPA Could Spell the End of the eBook Self-Publishing Movement

This morning you’re probably hearing a lot about SOPA and PIPA, which stand for Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. You can read more about them on Wikipedia.

Wait, did that link work? Not if you clicked it on January 18, 2012. Wikipedia has temporarily shut down its site in protest to show what would happen if these laws were passed. They and thousands of other sites that allow anyone to publish content could cease to exist due to SOPA provisions that let copyright holders block sites that they accuse of aiding piracy.

BookBrewer is a self-publishing service, so that includes us.

We’re not shutting BookBrewer down in protest today, but we do feel it’s important to take a stand on SOPA and PIPA with respect to eBook publishing. We fear that SOPA would largely nullify the “safe harbor” copyright provisions that allow us and other companies like us to operate self-publishing services. That could effectively stop the eBook self-publishing movement in its tracks — a real travesty given the proven potential for eBooks to fund content creation.

How Current Copyright Law Makes BookBrewer Possible

BookBrewer and services like it exist expressly to help anyone publish content to sell as eBooks and on-demand paperbacks. Like Wikipedia and Facebook, our publishing tools are set up to allow you to work on your content without external interference. We don’t — and in fact, we can’t — review and edit every book that goes through our system (and you don’t want us to). That’s what makes us a publishing service and not a traditional publisher.

In order to operate such an ecosystem, we require authors to agree to common-sense terms, such as “you agree that you own the copyright to everything you’re publishing” and “you agree that you aren’t engaging in plagiarism.” We take them at their word and only investigate if someone notifies us or files a notice under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) Safe Harbor Provisions.

In our 15-month history we have only received one such DMCA notice, despite having thousands of books go through our system. Following the DMCA process, we promptly removed that eBook from circulation and nicely informed the author of the claim. It turns out she had inadvertently used “Dummies” in her book title (a term trademark owned by Wiley), so she renamed the book and republished it. It was an easy, straightforward and fair process for everyone involved.

How SOPA Would Change Things

How would this story change under SOPA? That one complaint could cause BookBrewer to be labeled a piracy site, and the author as a pirate. Our domain name could be blocked, effectively shutting down BookBrewer, and payments we receive through PayPal could be shut off.

The same could happen to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and all the places where the eBook is sold. In fact, selling content with copyright violations is even more dangerous than distributing it due to the potential for monetary damages. We wonder if eBook retailers would even accept self-published content anymore.

Say Goodbye to In-Book Links

But believe it or not, it gets even worse. BookBrewer includes an RSS import feature for bloggers that lets them quickly import their blog posts, edit them and publish eBooks from their blogs. That includes the links from the imported blogs.

SOPA requires sites in the U.S. that link to offshore “rogue web sites” to remove those links or face legal action. Since an eBook is essentially a mobile Web site, who’s the pirate in this case, and what’s the Web site? Is it the eBook?

Let’s look at blogger Brad Feld, who agreed to let us use him as an example in this post. He’s published two books in the past (Do More Faster and Venture Deals) through a traditional publisher. His third book about Entrepreneurial Communities will be self-published.

Since the eBook is based on Brad’s blog posts over the years, you can bet that it will include plenty of links to external sites. If he happened to link to something that contains copyrighted material that was used without permission, guess what? Brad’s eBook itself could be considered a party to piracy. Say “Arrrr,” Brad!

To those who say that SOPA applies to Web sites and not eBooks, we beg to differ. Every eBook is essentially a self-contained Web site that you can copy to your device of choice. How many already published eBooks would need to be rewritten to remove hyperlinks? Could we as BookBrewer continue to host them? Could anyone? The legal liability would be too high.

In the End, It’s About You

We’ve explained how SOPA would impact BookBrewer and our business, but that’s not what bothers us the most. We worry about what will happen to you, the self-publishing authors who are redefining what it means to “get published.”

It’s one thing for a startup to get shut down, but even worse for an honest individual to be made out as a criminal. The average self-published author is over 40 years old, and is someone’s mom, dad, grandmother, uncle or teacher. We’re increasingly seeing books from college students and teens, and even a few art eBooks from elementary school kids publishing with their parents’ permission.

We understand that piracy is a real problem for large publishers, but there are more effective and fair ways to deal with it. Tying the hands of honest writers and allowing them to be labeled as criminals is not the solution.

If you agree, please call or write to your member of Congress and let them know what you think of SOPA.

Dan Pacheco