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 a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools 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.
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[…] Note: I’m a boyscout and I have faith in people… but it seems flat out copying does happen, like in this example. […]

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[…] Note: I’m a boyscout and I have faith in people… but it seems flat out copying does happen, like in this example. […]

LB Johnson
5 years ago

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?

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[…] Ackerman details her encounter with copyright infringement on Writers Helping Writers. This is serious […]

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Monday Must-Reads [07.21.14 The Last Month's Worth]
6 years ago

[…] Book Cover Copycats: Is It Flattery or Copyright Infringement? | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELP… […]

Melissa Sugar
6 years ago

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.

Marcia
6 years ago

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.

Derek Murphy (@Creativindie)

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.

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
6 years ago

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
6 years ago
Reply to  BECCA PUGLISI

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*

Charlie Holmberg
6 years ago

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

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[…] Note: I’m a boyscout and I have faith in peo­ple… but it seems flat out copy­ing does hap­pen, like in this example. […]

Karla
Karla
6 years ago

Oh! How scary. There’s so much information that many of us don’t know. I truly believe things happen for a reason and perhaps you went through that ordeal to share insight with the rest of us. I’m glad things worked for you all, though!

Is there a legal book for authors to read? lol. Seems like we need to protect ourselves because we never know what may happen.

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

Thanks for posting these invaluable links, Angela 🙂 (no need to reply lol)

Angela Kulig
6 years ago

That is awful. Truly a scam, and truly unfortunate.

As someone else mentioned, I don’t want your readers to be confused about copyright and stock photography. The vast majority of indie covers are not original art, or one time use images (exclusive rights). If you buy a stock photo and use it as your cover, there is nothing to keep Joe from putting the exact same image on his cover. I just don’t wants fights to break out between authors that won’t have a winner. It that case, it likely isn’t stealing… so much as being unaware. Not everyone is this level of vindictive.

Traci Kenworth
6 years ago

How horrifying!! Hugs, Ladies!! I’m glad someone/s were looking out for you and it was taken care of!!

MJ Bush
MJ Bush
6 years ago

Oh goodness. I’m so sorry. There’s no excuse for that and I just want to give you a hug.

But it’s great to see the community stepping up to support you. And it’s a great lesson on how to handle copyright infringement.

Bish Denham
6 years ago

Wow! Thanks for the information and I’m SO glad you got the impostor book removed.

Stephanie Scott
6 years ago

I’m so glad Amazon took it down. You really did your homework and I’m glad to hear you pursued this!

A friend of mine co-wrote a technical book. Someone from his work team, in the same industry, came upon a “book” on Amazon that recycled some of their copyrighted material along with stuff from dozens of other sources. The book was akin to doing an internet search, copy+pasting into a document, and uploading. It literally made no linear sense, and it cost as much as a textbook. Thanks to a flashy cover, these fake authors even garnered some sales.

Leslie
6 years ago

Yikes! I’m so glad Amazon upheld your rights.

Alex J. Cavanaugh
6 years ago

That was rather brazen. I’ve seen similar covers, but that was a complete copy. Hopefully no one was duped and glad Amazon took it down.

Tamara Meyers
Tamara Meyers
6 years ago

What do you have to do to copyright a cover? The cover on my book is original art – I painted it – and it is on line, but only as the cover of my book. Since I have the original watercolor, and my name is on the cover, is that enough? It would be terrible to have someone steal my cover but also my art.

Mart Ramirez
6 years ago

Thank you for sharing the details on this with us! I had wondered if things were taken care of. So glad they were able to straighten things out. What a horrible violated feeling. You and Becca work so hard. I am so glad everything turned out okay.

And how horrible for the man who shared his idea for that TV show and they ended up using it!

Bonnie Doran
6 years ago

How awful. I’m glad you got the issue resolved, at least with Amazon.

On a lighter note, I wanted to order a cake with my book cover on it. The baker at a supermarket said, “Oh, we can’t do that. It’s copyright infringement.”

“But it’s my book.”

“We can’t do that. We’ll get into trouble.”

I pulled the novel from my purse. “I wrote the book.”

“Let me call the supervisor.”

The supervisor okayed it after I showed her my ID. At my book launch party, friends were determined to eat the copyright infringement cake and destroy the evidence.

Mindy
6 years ago

Theft is theft! Good on you for tracking this down. Very scary. Mindy

K.M. Weiland
6 years ago

Wow. Gobsmacked is exactly the word for it. o.o You do see *lots* of books playing off bestsellers (if I’ve seen one title with “50 shades” in it – erotic or not – I’ve seen a hundred), but nothing quite that egregious.

Ben Stoddard
6 years ago

It almost makes you wish there was some sort of quality control in the self E-publishing market, yet that would defeat the whole purpose.

Good on you for successfully taking the copycat down. The idea that someone would steal a portion of what I’ve been working so hard on is kind of terrifying, even though I haven’t sent anything out yet. That’s one reason I like living in Canada though – copyright is automatic.

Mikki Sadil
Mikki Sadil
6 years ago

Angela, what an interesting post! I’m sure glad you got things worked out and Amazon took the book down. I have all three of your Thesauruses…er, Thesaurusi?…anyway, I have all three and love them. When are you going to do a Setting one? I use so many of your settings in my writing.
Anyway, when I published my first book last year, I learned something very interesting: Cover Artists don’t always, or even usually, make their own covers for the books. They take photos from a variety of websites where the photos are not copyrighted, usually they pay for them, and arrange these photos into a cover to represent the book they are working on.
However…you CAN find one or more of these same photos on different book covers, but it is NOT copyright infringement because the photos are on a website that is not copyrighted. Even though your book is copyrighted, another CA could find the same photo used on your book cover, and pay for its use then use it in a collage of some kind that will go on another book. The point is, once the photo on a website is sold, apparently, it is not taken down. It is still there for someone else to use.

My second book published this April, has this lovely young red-haired girl on the cover, along with a beautiful Palomino horse and some background. Recently, I found on another book cover the same girl, in the same pose, but with an entirely different background. It was a surprise, to say the least, but nothing can be done about it, because the photo itself is not copyrighted.

Your situation is different, because it is obvious this guy just copied everything about your book cover, but it still comes as a shock to see a part of your own book cover on someone else’s book.
Mikki

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

Yay! More great books to look forward to! 😀

Robyn Campbell
6 years ago

Ange, Becca, how awful! 🙁 This is so disturbing that you guys had to go through all of this. HUGE KUDOS to whoever it was that noticed the book on Amazon to begin with! I am THRILLED that this was resolved quicker than it might have been (could have taken years). As I read your story, I wondered how many times this has happened, and the author never knew about it. PSHAW on that Matt person. PHOOEY! Thanks for the lesson on law, y’all. (Law Thesaurus?) *wink* (((hugs)))

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

Angela (and Becca), as soon as I saw this, my stomach turned. It is not just a “little” obvious that this “author” deliberately copied, almost to a “T,” your book cover! I am just glad Amazon did the just thing. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case, it seems. Regardless of how flattering it is, this is no consolation. You feel “raped.” The reason I know this is because, as Laura and you both pointed out, I had my work “stolen/pirated” through a publishing house. I just don’t know who AT the house was responsible in having given my dummy book—which was requested by an art director at a conference—to an already published author/illustrator—obviously in desperate need of an idea—who tweaked my work and published it through a different house. Several people tried to console me by saying if that person “stole” my work, they lacked what you have. Yeah, OK–flattery? Sorry, but it’s meaningless.

It was last Nov. when I was doing my typical “Barnes Browse” in the children’s dept. and saw the cover of this book face out on the shelf. I did a double-take, thinking it seemed WAY too coincidental. When I sat in the café to read my pile of new releases and came to that one, from the cover, to the jacket flap, title page, basic idea and even illustration content, including the SAME TWO characters, I KNEW what had happened. Here I am, a struggling, aspiring author/illustrator who came close to having MY book published, had it stolen by this “woman” (insert appropriately nasty, more accurate word).

Of course, my immediate reaction was to see if I could/should do anything about it. Two agents I know (one is a lawyer) looked at it and weren’t confident about my chances. Another was, but that first day I also spoke to a knowledgeable friend and her wise advice was to not let this horrible situation distract or derail me. She said my book deserved to be published and to stay on track. It’s what I did because I can’t afford the time or money it would take trying to get justice on this one. All I know is I have a hard time feeling like the Christian woman I am when I think of this woman and what she did. I’ve had a fantasy of how it would go down if I ever actually met her. Man, I’d love to see her reaction! And sadly, this is not the first time I’ve had my work used or stolen (in other venues), so the act itself doesn’t shock me. I will never know how these people can sleep at night—to have absolutely NO conscience.

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

Thanks, Angela 🙂 There’s no way not to hurt for each other in these circumstances, right?

In this case I can 1000% guarantee you that this author/illustrator actually had her grubby little hands ON my dummy book, or copies/scans of it. When you are the creator of characters, story and illustrations for a 32-page dummy book, you know what it took to conceive and execute everything in it. This was definitely not a “this is a good idea and here are some suggestions” type situation. That’s why I know it. It’s not a case of something being similar. If you actually saw the two books side by side, it’s incredibly obvious, not just to me, but to anyone I’ve shown it to.

It’s a killer, and I can tell you, every time I’m at Barnes and see one of her books displayed, I literally have to turn them upside down or backward, think the “you don’t deserve to be there!” thoughts and wish I could burn them all. But–that’s as far as I’m able to go with it, and once I let any pursuit go (within a day), I put it behind me, for the most part, though it has affected me deeply. Though that same friend has said this is the “exception, not the rule” and shouldn’t have it hold me back from submitting—it does. The only editor I submitted work to since then was someone I know and I could email him directly–no one else would see it. I can’t bring myself to submit without representation so I’m back on the agent track. I haven’t submitted consistently over the years. In spurts, for all sorts of reasons, but now I’m much more pro-active. I keep hoping something will break ’cause I’m getting pretty old and so is the struggle. We’ll see what happens!

Thanks, Angela 😀 oxox

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

Yes, I see it as pretty much unforgivable no matter what, but when someone knows it first hand, even more so. It’s the epitome of a self-serving act in this respect. At least we don’t have that in us 🙂

Mary Ellen Quigley
6 years ago

This is crazy! I know people have similar covers all the time. Self-published authors will often buy the same stock photo and end up with covers that look almost exactly the same. This was downright stealing! You can tell they spent time making sure their cover was like yours. I hate people like that.

Luckily I am not popular enough for anyone to want my stuff. I haven’t dealt with any copyright issues yet.

Donovan m. Neal
6 years ago

Awesome post! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.
P.S. I love your book! 🙂

Heather McCorkle
6 years ago

In my opinion it is by no means a form of flatter, it’s a straight up attempt to ride bestselling curtails. Unfortunately it happens everywhere in all industries. Even more unfortunate, it’s hard to copyright an idea or brand. There is a site where one can copyright photos and I believe it works for covers as well. Here’s the link: http://www.copyrighted.com/