Online piracy is a scourge on American authors — Congress must intervene
As legal thriller writers and attorneys, we are no strangers to drama in the pursuit of justice. Yet, even we could not have imagined the obstacles encountered in our lawsuit against Kiss Library, a notorious Ukraine-based network of e-book pirates, who for years had been robbing U.S. authors and publishers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kiss Library was a massive network of high-traffic pirate sites that included kisslibrary.net, kissly.net, thekissly.net, libly.net, cheap-library.com, and many other domains. These sites represented themselves as legitimate e-book retailers to unsuspecting readers, but their stock consisted of millions of stolen e-books illegally stripped of copy protection. It was only one of many large-scale e-book pirate operations that also include the infamous Z-Library and LibGen, both of which continue to operate openly and brazenly.
On Dec. 20, we won a resounding victory in a major lawsuit we brought with 10 other authors, Amazon Publishing, and Penguin Random House against the pirates. The Authors Guild, of which all 12 complaining authors, including us, are active members, played a crucial role in organizing the litigation. We joined as plaintiffs in this lawsuit not for ourselves, but as representatives of our peers, the tens of thousands of authors who are part of America’s vital creative economy.
Every day, countless numbers of books, including ours, are stolen and sold or given away illegally over the internet. As a result, authors and the publishing industry as a whole hemorrhage large amounts of revenue each year. Book authors earn their incomes from legitimate sales of their books, as a percentage of each sale. When sales are replaced by pirated copies, authors earn a lot less. Piracy steals from us, not only the value of our labor, but the years we spent honing our craft and the personal sacrifices we make along the way. And for many authors, it is a matter of their livelihood.
While piracy is of course infuriating to us — nobody likes to be the repeated victim of crime — it is financially devastating to midlist and debut authors because of lost sales and fewer opportunities to get published. Piracy of struggling authors’ work may well make the difference between earning a living or not.
The maxim “For every wrong a remedy” is a bedrock principle of our legal system, meaning all Americans should have access to justice. Unfortunately, our laws do not provide authors and other creators a realistic path to justice against foreign-based pirates. Suing them requires an enormous war chest and legal expertise unavailable to all but the largest companies. Our lawsuit could not have been brought without the backing of Amazon Publishing and Penguin Random House, and the expertise of our legal team at Davis Wright Tremaine. Even the Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest association of writers, some 12,000 strong, couldn’t have obtained this result or borne the related costs alone.
As pirates no longer hoist the skull and crossbones, the first hurdle our legal team faced was to identify and track down the perpetrators, who had covered their tracks through fake aliases and domain switching. Using legal and cybersecurity tools, our team followed the trail of digital crumbs to two individuals in Ukraine: Rodion Vynnychenko and Artem Besshapochny.
After identifying them, the team had to serve them with legal papers in Ukraine. By this point, aware of our efforts, the two were scrambling to destroy evidence and evade service. After a lengthy investigation, delayed by lack of funding for the Ukrainian court to effect service, our Ukrainian counsel and investigators finally tracked the duo down.
Vynnychenko twice registered fake addresses with the Ukrainian government, forcing us to hire private investigators to uncover his true address, where he twice refused to accept the subpoena served by the Ukrainian government.
The second defendant, Besshapochny, claimed he was the subject of mistaken identity, even though the Ukrainian court found that he was “indeed the person” identified in the lawsuit, registered with the Ukrainian government under that name, and the evidence showed he already had a ruling against him for prior misconduct by the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Neither defendant showed up in court. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington found for the twelve author plaintiffs, Amazon Publishing, and Penguin Random House on all claims, awarding us $150,000 for each count of copyright infringement, the highest amount allowed by law, for a total of $7.8 million.
Pursuing payment of the award will likely present similar hurdles to the ones we faced in bringing the suit. The most important thing is that the Kiss Library network of dozens of sites is now down, and the court armed us with an injunction that we can use to take down any mirror sites that surface. This is a crucial victory for American authors. Our win sends a strong signal to pirates everywhere that they can and will be sued in the U.S.
Nevertheless, the time and money required for the suit demonstrate the absurdity of leaving anti-piracy enforcement to the victims. The Authors Guild is lobbying Congress for more funding for criminal enforcement against piracy. We are also asking Congress to amend the law to stop U.S. search engines from linking to notorious foreign-based piracy sites, which they have refused to do on their own. Such measures would spare authors and other creators the enormous costs of suing bad guys like Kiss Library overseas.
Piracy is a criminal offense, and our country should treat it as such.
John Grisham and Scott Turow are best-selling legal thriller authors and attorneys.
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