Book Cover Copycats: Is It Flattery or Copyright Infringement?

A while back, a reader of our book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, sent me an interesting email. In it, she explained that during her Amazon travels she discovered a book that was a lot like ours. In fact, it was almost a carbon copy. I followed the link, and what I found left me gobsmacked.

et amazoninternet marketing thesaurus

Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

For me, the shock was double. First, that someone would mimic our cover, right down to the color scheme, and secondly, that they would also call their book a “Thesaurus.” To me, these two things together pointed in one direction…the authors were trying to piggyback our book, perhaps in hopes that some of our fans would buy their product, mistakenly thinking it was actually part of our bestselling series.

The idea that people could be taken in by this made me feel sick. The first thing I had to do was get a copy of the book to see inside it. A copied cover was one thing, but if our book content was also being used, that would be catastrophic. The book was on a free promotion, so I downloaded it.

Thankfully the content had nothing to do with our books. But what it was (a set of simple internet marketing term definitions for things like “HTML” and “Blog” without any teaching content or advice whatsoever) didn’t make it feel like a book (and certainly not a thesaurus!) This, combined with a lengthy legal disclaimer at the start of the book (perhaps a measure taken in case buyers were not happy with the value?), left me with the feeling that this could be a “trying to make a quick buck” situation.

The last thing I wanted was for anyone to think this book was associated with us. Becca quickly emailed Writer’s Beware, who advised us to contact Amazon directly as they were cracking down on “non-books” and could remove it from sale if it fell under copyright infringement. (I emailed our cover designer, Scarlett Rugers, who assured us that the design was ours alone, and we owned the copyright.)

We contacted Amazon and while we waited for a response, I started looking into the authors, hoping to reach them to ask about their intentions. Two authors were listed in the book, while only one was listed on the cover. Every lead I followed turned into smoke. No websites, no amazon author profiles. The publisher had no website either, and a few other books tied to them (things like blank recipe and address books) were uploaded around the same time. The authors of these “books” also had no online presences or websites. I couldn’t help but wonder if they might be pseudonyms, in case one book was taken down the others would be unaffected.

I went to the Kindle boards community to see if they had any idea how to track down the authors of this book. They are such a great group of people, and offered me lots of ideas on how to track him down, in case Amazon refused to pull the book on their end.

The full discussion is here if anyone wants to read it. If you are running up against a situation regarding copyright, it’s worth reading and accessing links. Interestingly, the issue became somewhat of a debate. People were divided…was this a form of copyright infringement, or not? Cover similarities are seen all the time after all, even in traditional publishing. Of course, sometimes this can get publishers into deep trouble. So was this a situation where there was little we could do? Or, perhaps we should even feel “flattered” someone recognized our book’s popularity and sought to emulate it?

I know how Becca and I felt about it. The guy called it a Thesaurus for one. And he didn’t just take inspiration from our cover, he copied it to the best of his ability. There are subtle differences obviously, but it was clear (we felt) this was a case of someone trying to misuse our trusted brand.

Luckily, my local SCBWI hosted a workshop right around this time on Intellectual Copyright Law, led by a IC lawyer. (I’ll mention straight out that I live in Canada, and international interpretation of law will vary.)

He discussed a few things: Branding, Copyright, and Trademark. Here are some loose definitions based on my notes:

Trademark: a mark that legally represents something, often a business, by their goods or services.

Branding: distinguishing your product from those of your competitors. When a consumer sees your branding (colors, words or phrases, etc.) or logo, they associate it with your product.

Copyright: exclusive rights granted to the originator of intellectual property to use and distribute.

Businesses are constantly attempting to divert consumer attention from an established brand to their own products by adopting a similar look. If a person could be legitimately confused and assume the logo or brand was the same, then you have a case for breaking copyright.

So when is someone taking the work of another without permission (to use, distribute or to create derivative works), classified as copyright infringement?

The lawyer said that the test for this is not how much of the finished work is unique, but instead how much was taken from someone else. Could a consumer become legitimately confused (as mentioned above)?

One case the lawyer brought up was an author who pitched a TV cartoon to producers but was turned down. A year later, the TV station launched a cartoon that was eerily similar to what he pitched (the series plot scenario, some distinctive characters, etc.) The author went after them, and while the producers argued that there were unique elements that were completely different than what the author pitched (an additional sidekick character, a special talent for the main character that was not in the author’s version, etc.) the court ruled in favor of the author. They felt there was enough similar to his proposed series to classify as infringement.

When I showed the lawyer the cover of The Emotion Thesaurus, and then The Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books, and then the copied Internet Marketing cover, he said in my case, the infringement falls under “Distinguishing Guise.” This means that the “look” of our books are the same, and contribute to our established brand.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00066] 1ET 1NT

As you can see, our books are very similar, built to be recognizable. Readers who see our covers associate the look of each with our brand. Therefore, trying to imitate our covers in this way is infringing on our copyright.

Luckily for us, Amazon agreed with out assessment of copyright infringement, and after filling out a legal declaration that we were the copyright holders, they removed the other book from their sites. Hopefully no one was taken in by the copied look, thinking it was somehow associated with us.

I wanted to share this story in case it might help someone else. Please Note: I’m not dispensing legal advice, simply relaying my own experience and memory of what was discussed at the workshop.

Authors work hard at creating a brand for themselves. Protect yours. If you are an author and having a unique cover is important to you, make sure that the artist you’re working with has no plans of reselling the cover design to others. And remember that copyright is easier to prove if it has been registered.

A huge thank you to everyone who helped us work through this situation, and to all of you wonderful readers who watch out for us. We are so privileged that you have our backs.

Have you run into copyright infringement? Have any insight you can add? Please let us know in the comments!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in About Us, Publishing and Self Publishing, Sales Numbers & Helpful Data, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

68 Responses to Book Cover Copycats: Is It Flattery or Copyright Infringement?

  1. Pingback: Why you should be using clichés in your book cover design

  2. LB Johnson says:

    Thanks for the great information. I have another question. My Amazon best seller is on a foreign website offered for free with some really horribly written sales points and lots of skanky lingerie. A friend who is retired IT guy got me the name of the company that set up the domain and I reported the abuse but the website is still up. Their main site is in something other than English.

    Any advice?

  3. Pingback: Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, July 20-26, 2014 | Writerly Goodness

  4. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [07.21.14 The Last Month's Worth]

  5. Holy crap! I just stopped by to see what was going on and my first and immediate reaction was, wow, they have another one for me to buy and read. That’s how much the cover copies yours. It’s horrible. It’s one thing when others take our lead or use our ideas, while giving full credit to the true author. I can’t tell you how much I have relied on your blogs and books as references and guides, but this is outright copyright infringement – it has to be . The author’s intent could only have been to ride on the coattail of ya’ll’s huge success.

    I hope it is worked out soon. Best of luck and I really hate this happened to the two of you.

  6. Marcia says:

    Wow. This must have been upsetting, and made a lot of work for you that you didn’t expect to have to do. I’m glad things went in your favor, and thanks for sharing the experience.

  7. This is really interesting, I had just finished a post on
    book cover clichés were I said flat out copying like this rarely happens. I can’t see what they hoped to achieve by copying directly, unless as you say to fool people into associating their book with your branding. Nice you got it all settled, I wouldn’t have thought that possible.

    • What’s funny is that I was just at your blog reading your article! Yes, this is an odd cover to copy, but when you combine it with the title copying, then to me it seems clear the author was hoping people might tie this book to our series.

      I don’t really understand why people try to shortcut–just write the best book you can and create a cover that speaks to your book and brand.

      Thanks for stopping in!

      Angela

      • What I found interesting was that when we started digging into this, we discovered that this DOES happen often enough—so often that Amazon has a loose track record of removing the offending books when asked to do so. I had no idea.

        • :Donna Marie says:

          Becca, it all makes me ill. Just goes to show you how many people will do whatever it takes to help themselves get ahead in whichever way they’re shooting for, and they have no problem “stealing” from others to do it. *sigh*

  8. This is insane! I’m so glad you took action and shared your experience. Yikes!

  9. Pingback: Book cover clichés: why using them will actually help you sell more books | Creativindie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *