“Alright” Is All Right, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s the Best Choice

Over on Kboards today, I read a good thread on a perennial editing question, “Is ‘alright’ all right?” I have some thoughts on this matter … of course! To fail to care deeply about such minutia would be to abandon my self-definition as Really Quite Obsessive About Words. Buuuut, the thread seemed to have run its course, and I hate to stir things up by adding a post. Writers can get pretty exercised about this one. Because aren’t we all At Least a Little Obsessive About Words?

So, I’ll ask the question here: Is “alright” all right? And I’ll go right on and stake out an answer: Yes and no, but mostly no, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

First off, yes, you’ll see “alright” in the dictionary. And you’ll see “comprise” defined as “constitute” and “forte” pronounced for-TAY. Etc. That’s because these words are in the process of change. A century or three from now, few people will use “all right,” and no one will remember that “comprise” once meant “contain.” Dictionaries are generally descriptive, not prescriptive, so if people out there are using a particular word in a particular way, it will end up in the dictionary. That makes dictionaries not always useful in making editing choices. All many dictionaries will tell you is that, Yes, some people out there are using this word in this way. But you already knew that; if the word weren’t being used in the way you want to use it, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you to use it that way. Some of the better ones have extensive usage notes. I think Dictionary.com is outstanding in that area. But many of them don’t.

Getting back to “alright”/”all right,” the problem is that the change to the word’s spelling is in process right now, not complete. Therefore, a substantial part of the population thinks of the new spelling as “wrong.” They remember being taught the mnemonic “‘alright’ is not all right” in grade school, and they took it to heart. They don’t necessarily spend their time navel-gazing about the idea that language is constantly shifting, and that spellings and definitions aren’t really right or wrong in some objective sense, but merely common or uncommon, accepted or not accepted. Most people don’t think of vocabulary that way. Words mean certain things and are spelled in particular ways; you know the right way, or you’re misinformed.

And importantly, the types of people who remember the rule they learned about “alright”/”all right” when they were eight years old are probably more likely to care about which spelling you use. Just think of it: They remember something from third grade! It’s practically super-heroic. You know what makes people remember stuff from way back when? Caring about it. Thus, these are the folks who get annoyed that so many people are “doing it wrong, these days.” Those who blithely go around using “alright”? I bet they’re less likely to get irked at seeing the form they don’t use. Early adopters of language changes are the more flexible folks. Because of educational experience or personality or something else, they’ve taken language flux on board more readily.

So, does one edit to please the uptight, old fashioned folks or the laid-back, rolling-with-change folks? You can probably guess my answer: When you’re editing and you encounter a word in the process of change, I think it makes sense to choose the older or more traditionally acceptable of the competing forms. The people who are still clinging to the old form/definition will nod and say, Ah, here’s a writer who really knows her stuff! And the people who’ve moved on to the newer form in their personal usage? They probably won’t be all that bothered about seeing the older form. They’ll be used to encountering it in formal documents, or they won’t notice the difference, or they’ll notice it and shrug it off. Some small percentage might think, Ah, that fuddy-duddy, still sticking to the old ways, resisting the natural evolution of language! But I bet they’re a small contingent.

So, yeah, there’s nothing really wrong with “alright,” and one day, it will reign victorious. The pull of “already” and “altogether” and “albeit” and “almost” and “already” and “also” and “always” is too strong to resist. “All,” bless its heart, is clearly a word destined to be chopped up and squished onto things. Why should “all right” remain a holdout?

BUT. Until it the contest is well and truly over and “all right” has come to sound archaic and/or pedantic, I think it will remain the safer choice.

Nolander, Revised

In March 2015, I published a revised version of Nolander on all retail platforms. I’ve updated the book several times before, fixing small mistakes and formatting problems. But this (4th) edition represents more significant changes:

  • The book’s been professionally proofread and formatted.
  • I altered the beginning to speed things up a bit. The book has gotten many reviews that say something to the effect of, “Starts off slow, but …,” or, “Took me a while to get into it, but ….” I suspect many potential readers didn’t make it through the leisurely beginning, so I did some tightening. Beth now has her first “paranormal experience” in the opening pages. Instead of having her describe her panic attacks, we see her have one. And Matt, the ex-boyfriend, has bitten the dust.
  • The Ghosteater chapters now use a straight third-person point of view.
  • Beth is now a digital photographer. When I wrote Nolander, I didn’t realize how hard it’s become to acquire film for traditional cameras. Now that I’m clued in, making Beth a print photographer seems unrealistic. It would actually be more expensive for her to go that route, not less.
  • I cut down on the amount of sitting-around-and-explaining Graham and Cordus do.
  • I’ve added a glossary at the back to help readers keep track of places, people, and things.
  • I’ve tweaked the ending slightly to try to give the last Beth chapter a little more punch. In so doing, I was trying to address this kind of feedback:
    • “I am a little bummed that the book simply stops as if it were a chapter break rather than having a proper ending.”
    • “… the ending is quite abrupt. Another chapter would have helped this book seem complete. Nothing wrong with a cliff hanger ending but it felt like we lost a chapter at the end, instead of finishing up the tale and leaving it open for the next one.”
    • “Abrupt ending was disappointing …”

    I know cliff-hangers drive people nuts, but I don’t think these readers are reacting to the cliff-hanger, per se. I think the ending felt unintentionally incomplete. This was by far the hardest issue to deal with, as I didn’t want to make revisions that would change the novel’s plot. In the end, I just added another couple lines that I hope will give Beth’s last chapter a more complete feel. I vacillated quite a bit on this revision. Before settling on the additional lines, I experimented with adding a scene. That version (let’s call it Edition 3.5) made it into the free Gods and Mortals collection, so if you’re curious, you can check it out it there. I might also print it as a separate blog entry.

That’s about it. The overall plot in the 4th ed. remains unchanged, so people who’ve read older editions should be able to go from those to Solatium without any confusion.

If you’ve read an older edition and would like to have the new one alongside the old, here’s the mobi (for Kindle) and the epub (for most other ereaders). The files are compressed for quick downloading. Once you have them, you’ll need to open the zipped file. You can then read the book on your computer, using an ereading app or a program like Calibre, or you can sideload it to your tablet or ereader. Directions on how to do that are here.

Read in good health! :)

eBooks and DMCA Abuse: A Few Suggestions Based on My Experience

Thanks to the fine people of the indie-publishing community, Nolander has recovered wonderfully from its week’s vacation. Folks on The Passive Voice blog and the Kboards Writers’ Cafe urged downloads, and a number of discounted/free book sites spontaneously advertised the book: big thanks to OHFB, Pixel of Ink, Flurries of Words, eBookDaily, and Free Kindle Books for your generous help. With so many people in its corner, Nolander got a couple thousand downloads and bounced up into the top two hundred free books on Amazon. It was an amazing and moving thing to see. The self-publishing community is strikingly diverse, and we don’t always agree on stuff. But we’re there for each other at the big moments, and that tendency to act together — fostered by those sites that give us places to gather — gives us some leverage. Thank you all so much for using that leverage on my behalf.

Now, I think we need to keep applying leverage: how retailers respond to DMCA take-down notices needs adjustment.

The best-case scenario is that my experience was a one-off event — that my scammer had something against me, personally, and this won’t happen to anyone else. Fingers crossed that’s the case. But it might not be. This could’ve been a money-making scheme, with the target being selected wholly or partly at random. Worst-case scenario, Nolander was a trial balloon for someone(s) with bigger plans.

I think distributors and retailers need to figure out how they’re going to deal with this sort of thing if it happens again. It’s obviously no good for retailer sites to become hunting preserves where scammers troll around, looking for their next mark. And if retailers unintentionally and unwittingly ended up making blackmail easier in a consistent way, that would be awful.

Solving this problem is probably above my pay grade. I hope the retailers have people working on it, and that they come up with better and more creative ideas than mine. But FWIW, here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Send the author the full name, email address, and physical mailing address of the filer of any DMCA notice immediately. Include a link to the evidence of copyright infringement the filer submitted. These things did not happen in my case. From one retailer, I received the name and email address only; from the other, I received none of the above.
  2. If the author submits a DMCA counter-notice, restore the book to the site within the time-frame stipulated by the DMCA. What I’m recommending here would, apparently, be a significant change of policy. Unlike ISPs, retailers consider themselves exempt from the counter-noticing provisions of the DMCA (I don’t know if this is a reasonable assumption, on their parts, or a legally established status). On the face of things, the exemption makes some sense: retailers have the right to sell whatever they want for whatever reasons they want, right? If Amazon wants to refuse to sell any book with the word “The” in the title, it can go ahead and do that, so far as I know. The problem with this approach is that the counter-noticing provision is the DMCA’s one and only safeguard against abuse by non-U.S. residents, who cannot be curbed through the U.S. courts. It was built into the law for a reason. If retailers react to noticing (as they must) while ignoring counter-noticing, they render the law dysfunctional and create a dangerous imbalance of power.
  3. Put some well trained people to work actually looking at the evidence submitted with DMCA notices and counter-notices. (So far as I can tell, this did not happen in my case. The evidence seems to have initially been accepted without examination.) A retailer must remove a book if it receives a DMCA notice. So far as I know, there’s no way around that rule, even if the notice is obviously fraudulent. But does the law say a retailer cannot then reach out to the book’s author and suggest independent resources that would help the author move forward with appropriate counter-noticing? Not that I know of. So, in cases where they see clear evidence of fraud, retailers should reach out to authors in this way, IMO. Perhaps authors identified as potential victims of fraud could be directed to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or some other source of assistance.
  4. Indie authors should support any organization that steps up to provide effective advice and assistance in these matters, especially if caseloads rise in the future. I’m sure even small donations would help. We don’t have large corporate legal departments standing behind us. (That’s something traditionally published authors get in exchange for their lower royalty rates.) Sending some of our profits to organizations that help with this sort of thing would probably be a good idea.

Would these changes solve the problem completely? I don’t think so. But they’re the best ideas I’ve been able to come up with. If you think of other possibilities, please share them.

Distributors and retailers obviously have a big stake in this issue, legally. But the repercussions for individual authors may be even bigger, when you consider possible career impact. If we have ideas to offer, we should make them heard. Perhaps we can help our book-selling partners make the marketplace safer for all.

With deep thanks, Happy reading to all!

Becca

P.S. Not sure what this is all about? Start here.

DMCA Problem Resolved — for Me. Not So Sure About Everyone Else.

I’m delighted to say that Nolander is back on sale — or on giveaway, anyway — on Amazon. Even as the lower levels of KDP were churning out the form letter I quoted in my last post, the upper levels must have been giving the problem more individualized consideration. So, thank you to Amazon and KDP for taking care of this problem. And a huge thank you to the folks on Kboards who orchestrated an attention-getting email campaign on my behalf. You guys are the best. :)

Hopefully this situation is all wrapped up. I’ve been in touch with other retail platforms, asking them to be alert for fraudulent attacks on my books. Fingers-crossed, I won’t have to deal with this sort of thing again. But of course, other people might. In fact, I might be safer than others, now, since there’s a paper trail (“electron trail”?) at all the retailers documenting my having been targeted.

For the time being, I had better go grade some student papers.

But I want to think about this DMCA-scam issue some more. My scammer clearly made some mistakes, and those allowed me to build a convincing case. But what if there are no mistakes, next time? The person I spoke to at Amazon said the company doesn’t want to inadvertently aid spurious uses of the DMCA and that it would be taking a fresh look at its current policy. I trust they will do that. Nevertheless, it seems like a tough problem to solve. The DMCA may have been written for the digital age, but it wasn’t really designed for a truly global environment — nothing that leans so heavily on the U.S. legal system for both its teeth and its safeguards is going to work properly when information flows unimpeded across borders. And it doesn’t seem to have been designed with today’s massive digital sales environment in mind, since retailers apparently see themselves as exempt from the counter-noticing process.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it seems like a problem we need to solve. Anyone have any ideas?


March 7 update: Aftermath for Nolander, and thoughts on how retailers could react to fraudulent DMCA notices more effectively.

Amazon KDP Digs in Its Heels on Fraudulent DMCA

Updating with the latest. What I sent to KDP a few days ago:

Dear [Rep’s Name],

Thank you for prompt response, and for your assistance with this matter. I appreciate Amazon’s careful attention to copyright issues.

Please find attached a DMCA counter-notice.

The DMCA notice you received from Rajesh Lahoti was fraudulent. Shortly after Amazon blocked my book from sale, Rajesh Lahoti initiated contact with me through my website, using an alias. He offered to help me with my “DMCA problem.” I believe he is using the DMCA process as part of a scam.

I hope this matter can be resolved quickly. Please let me know if you have questions or need anything else from me. For instance, I have a signed hard copy of my counter-notice, which I would be happy to mail in.

Sincerely,
[My Name]

What I just got:

Hello,

I’m so sorry, but we can’t offer any additional insight or action on this matter. We are unable to provide you with legal advice. For any specific questions you have about your publishing rights, we recommend you consult an attorney or copyright law professional.

Until this dispute is resolved by all parties concerned, the titles will not be made available for sale in the Kindle Store.

Best Regards,

[Rep’s Name]
Amazon.com

So, there’s the answer to that question: Amazon does not consider itself legally bound by the DMCA counter-noticing provision. If it did consider itself thus bound, it would have to unblock Nolander within 14 days unless a suit were filed against me in my U.S. Federal Court district by Rajesh Lahoti. That’s my understanding of the law, anyway.

(Not sure what all this is about? You’ll find my original post about the situation here.)

Edited to add: Here’s some happy news! Amazon restored the book later this afternoon.

Independent Publishing and DMCA Abuse, or “How a Scammer Got My Book Blocked with Very Little Effort”

Okay, I’ve got a story. It’s a sort of scary one. I think independent/self-publishing authors need to know about it, and telling it carefully and correctly is also important for my own situation, so I’m going to take my time and lay it all out in order.

Pressed for time? You can skip to the bottom for the TL;DR summation.


Becca Mills - Nolander - 333x500On Friday, February 27, 2015, I noticed that my bookmarked Amazon.com link to my first novel, Nolander, was yielding, “We’re sorry. The Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site.” I went to my Amazon dashboard and discovered the book had been blocked.

In my spam folder, I discovered an email from Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Amazon’s self-publishing arm, informing me that someone had sent in a DMCA notice. In response, Amazon had summarily blocked Nolander from sale.

“DMCA” stands for “Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” It’s a Clinton-era U.S. law that lays forth a process for dealing with copyright infringement online. If you find material online that infringes a copyright you hold, you can send the hosting website a DMCA notice; in order to be in compliance with U.S. law, the hosting website has to remove the material and notify the person who posted it.

When I heard a DMCA notice had been filed against Nolander — which is a completely original work — I assumed a reader had reacted badly after reading the book in a boxed set and then finding it available as a standalone. It could be confusing to find the same material in different places, after all. A vigilant reader might think something fishy was going on. So I wrote back to KDP, sending them my U.S. copyright registration info and assuring them that Nolander was my work.


Soon after, I found an email notification from Smashwords as well. That one was a little more informative:

Hi [my real name redacted],

I have just unpublished your book Nolander, formerly found here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/272292

As we received a DMCA Notice and I was able to verify that the text in your book, published on Jan. 07, 2013, matched the text of a book made public on August 2nd, 2011.

If you have any questions or can give me critical information about the book, please do.  Per our policy, the book needs to remain unpublished until Smashwords is given consent by both parties to republish it.

Thank you for your understanding.

Cheers,

*[name redacted] – Smashwords Support Team*

This was mystifying. I could imagine a vigilant, informed reader emailing Amazon about copyright concerns, but hunting around on other retailers for the book and contacting them? That seemed strange. I started to get a little worried.

I poked around on my hard drive and found a finished draft of Nolander dating from March 29, 2012. It’s the one I sent my husband so he could help proof the manuscript. I have it in mind that the book took about three months to write and a month to edit, so I probably began writing it in November or December 2011. August 2011 was situated conveniently before my writing would’ve begun.

Still, I figured Ockham’s Razor dictated this was an instance of boxed-set-related confusion. I’d seen such confusion arise for another author, though that confusion didn’t progress to a DMCA, so far as I know. Perhaps, I told myself, the Smashwords rep had been using a form letter and had neglected to replace “August 2nd, 2011″ with the correct publication date for the boxed set.

I wrote back to Smashwords with the same info I’d sent Amazon. Then I proactively contacted the other platforms where Nolander is available, hoping to head off any further take-downs.


Also in my email was a notification for a pending comment on my website (I have to personally approve comments from first-time commenters):

Kelvin

February 28, 2015 at 3:21 AM

I can’t find Nolander on Amazon. The link is returning “Page Not Found”. I only found a Print Edition on Amazon which cots $15 ! But I find Nolander on other stores like B&N.

Have you removed your book from Amazon? Sorry but I only download or buy books from Amazon. Please consider your decision again.

You can see the comment toward the bottom of my books page on this site. I approved the comment and responded:

Becca

February 28, 2015 at 7:31 AM

Hi, Kelvin. Yeah, someone apparently sent Amazon (and Smashwords also) a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice. That means they think the book infringes on a copyright. But I am the copyright-holder for the book, so I assume this is some kind of mix-up. The book will be unavailable until Amazon figures out what’s going on. Very annoying!

You can email me at bccamills@gmail.com, and I’ll send you a PDF. Kindles can display those.

Folks who know my email address might notice I typed it wrong, but Kelvin tracked me down anyway. I got this email on Saturday:

Regarding Your DMCA Problem

Kushal Das <kushaldas.usa@gmail.com>

Sat 2/28/2015 12:10 PM

Hello Becca,

I am Kushal, who posted on your blog with the screen name Kelvin. I have experience with various aspects of online business including DMCA process, hence I thought about contacting you.

Since you are saying that there has been problems both at Amazon and Smashwords, are you sure that it’s a mix-up? That would be quite unlikely. I don’t know about Indie Fiction Authors but in case of Webmasters, YouTubers and Indie Non-Fiction Authors, DMCA process is often abused. Are you sure someone is not deliberately doing this? Anyway, if the problem does not get resolved then you can let me know what Amazon is saying and I will see what can be done.

Paranormal authors with unique story telling angles are damn hard to find, so I don’t want you to go through this. A malicious DMCA attack can end a person’s career (happened with many YouTubers).

That’s why I am concerned. I hope you won’t find it creepy.

If possible, you can send me a pdf of Nolander.

P.S: I don’t live in USA. I live in India but I am currently going to take the GMAT and I use this email address to communicate with various American B-Schools.

Best Regards

Kushal Das

“How kind!” I thought. I set it aside to respond later. That’s the great thing about indie publishing: people come out of the woodwork to help you. It’s amazing.


At that point, KDP got back to me:

Hello,

As stated in our previous communication, we’ve received notice from a third party regarding copyright concerns over B007R6PPZA Nolander (Emanations, an urban fantasy series Book 1) by Becca Mills. We don’t involve ourselves in third party disputes and therefore have removed the availability of the book through our systems until this matter is resolved.

Here you will find information on the party that submitted the notice:

Rajesh Lahoti

theeroticaauthor@gmail.com

If a resolution is reached, before we may take any appropriate action regarding the book(s), all involved parties must contact us via title-submission@amazon.com.

Best Regards,

[name redacted]

Amazon.com

So, my proof of official, pre-publication U.S. copyright was not going to be enough. In order to get Nolander restored, both the DMCA complainant and I would need to write to Amazon giving permission. This was alarming. What if Rajesh Lahoti never responded? All they’d have to do was ignore my queries, and Nolander would never appear on the Amazon storefronts again.


A friend I spoke to about the situation pointed out how easy it would be to make my April 2012 book appear to rip off material from an August 2, 2011 book – all someone would have to do is take a book published August 2, 2011, stick a bit of Nolander into it somewhere, upload the new file, and then point Amazon/Smashwords at the new version. It doesn’t take much for a book to appear to be in copyright violation, right? Anything that’s not fair use is a violation. I bet a single paragraph would do it. Who knows? Maybe less.

This too was alarming.


I dashed a quick, neutral email off to Rajesh Lahoti saying I’d been informed of the DMCA notice by Amazon and asking for more info about their copyright concerns. I was still hoping this was an honest mix-up.


Then I turned back to Kushal Das’s generous email offering to help me with my “DMCA problem.”

Reading it again, I began to have some doubts. If Kushal was already a fan of my writing, why had they been trying to download the first of my series from Amazon? Hadn’t they already read it? And it sure was coincidental that they had emailed me about Nolander’s absence from Amazon the very day it happened.

So I wrote a careful response, trying not to give away anything new and yet not wanting to assume the worst of someone who was quite possibly a genuine good Samaritan:

Hi, Kushal. Thank you for the lovely compliments! I’m so glad you like my writing. :)

Here you go – attaching Nolander. This is actually the brand-new revised copy, which I’m just now having formatted. If you’d like a copy of the older edition, which is the one you would’ve read, just let me know. I have that too. I’m planning to make the new edition available on my website for existing readers to download, if they choose, rather than pushing an update through Amazon.

>> P.S. Hmm … I’m getting an error when I try to send this, so I’m going to try without the PDF attached. I can send the attachment later from home – have done it before, so I know it works. Maybe this café’s router balks at large attachments, or something.<<

If I get the book back up on Amazon, that is. Yeah, I didn’t want to sound alarmist in commenting on my website, but I am concerned about the situation. All I know is the name and email address of the complainant. I’ve written to that person asking for more information about their concerns. Hopefully it is just a misunderstanding.

I’ve never heard of malicious DMCAs being used against an author. If this is malicious, I guess I’ll have a real gem of an experience to share. :-/

At any rate, thank you so much for offering to help. It’s not creepy at all. Quite the opposite – it’s extremely kind and generous, and I’m grateful! I’d appreciate hearing any ideas or wisdom you have to share.

Good luck on your B-school apps! I’ve gone through the applying-to-grad-school thing. It’s tough and stressful, I know!

All the best,

Becca

The thing about not being able to attach the PDF was the only fib, here. I’ve been working on revising Nolander for the last few months. Bringing Solatium to completion was a tough but very good experience. It (I hope) made me a stronger writer, and I figured Nolander could benefit from my improved skills. Maybe I could do something about all those “it starts off slow” responses! But free book or not, the last thing I wanted to do was put the new version in the hands of someone I had doubts about.


Then I started poking around.

Since, based on the email address I was sent, the DMCA complainant appeared to be a writer, the first thing I did was check Amazon and Smashwords for books by Rajesh Lahoti. No one has published under that name. I Googled it and didn’t come up with anything notable.

Then I Googled Rajesh Lahoti’s email address, “theeroticaauthor@gmail.com.”

Nothing showed up … except for this, the hit at the top of the results:

Google_search_result_theeroticaauthoratgmaildotcom

Clicking on the link in the Google results led me here: http://gotoanswer.stanford.edu/?q=The+Ultimate+KINDLE+EROTICA+GHOST+WRITING+Service%3A+Best+Quality%2C+Best+Price

The link has functioned on and off this morning, so here’s a screenshot of where it led when I clicked on February 28:

goto_answer_screenshot

goto: answer is a search engine that indexes material posted on technical forums (according to its front page, http://gotoanswer.stanford.edu). Google seems to have indexed one of its search-result pages, creating a snippet based on what that search was returning at the time. All but one of those forum posts have since been deleted, so when I clicked on the link, I got the above: a mostly blank page, with just the one remaining post. But the author and location of that post caught my eye:

goto_answer_screenshot_closeup

The email address “theeroticaauthor@gmail.com” suggests that Rajesh Lahoti writes erotica, and I (and a bunch of other people) once had a run-in with some Warrior Forum members over on the Kboard Writers’ Cafe. So I followed that “… Ultimate KINDLE EROTICA …” link. It led to a Warrior Forum page on which a member going by “Ghost Author” had apparently posted a thread offering to ghostwrite erotica and had later deleted the posts: http://www.warriorforum.com/warriors-hire/1015285-offer-removed.html

Curious, I clicked through to Ghost Author’s profile: http://www.warriorforum.com/members/ghost-author.html

(I’ve saved and screen-shotted these pages, but to save space, I’ll hold off as long as the links still work.)

There I noticed the link in Ghost Author’s signature, which leads to an ad for his ghost writing services: http://www.warriorforum.com/warriors-hire/1016548-rave-reviews-best-kindle-erotica-ghost-writing-service-content.html

And what do you know? Ghost Author also goes by “Kushal”:

GhostAuthor_Kushal_ghostwriting_ad

I scrolled down to the thread of queries and responses from Warrior Forum members interested in Kushal’s services and found these comments:

Kushal_Das_WF_complaints

First name and last name: Kushal Das. So, the person who’d emailed me with the kind offer to help me with my “DMCA problem” apparently owns the email address from which the DMCA take-down notice was filed.

Honestly, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. When I went looking for some possible connection between Kushal Das and Rajesh Lahoti, I wasn’t expecting to find they were the same person. Talk about hitting pay dirt.

So, this person files a dishonest DMCA, gets my book taken down from two sites, and then contacts me, offering to help me deal with it. But why? I’m not a big seller. There’s little monetary potential in stealing my books and none at all in stealing a free one.

A vendetta, maybe? As you might imagine, I looked around for any connections between Kushal Das and past run-ins I’ve had with people. I couldn’t find any. Couldn’t find any connection between his name and me or my books, any connection between Warrior Forum and me or my books, any connections at all.

I was mystified. Why was Kushal Das targeting me?


The evening of February 28, I sent Kushal Das a PDF of the current (not the revised) version of Nolander. Why not? It’s been available as a free PDF download from Smashwords for years.

Then I sat tight and waited for him to email me back. I figured I might never hear from him. Maybe he only contacted me because he wanted the satisfaction of hearing that I was worried. But there was the chance that he wanted something from me. Maybe this was some sort of scam. If so, finding out what he wanted would be good.


On the morning of March 1, Kushal Das emailed me.

Re: Regarding Your DMCA Problem

Kushal Das <kushaldas.usa@gmail.com>

Sun 3/1/2015 8:16 AM

Hi Becca,

Thank you for sending the pdf. I would just like to say one thing about your problem though – please don’t try to upload the new version of Nolander on Amazon without sorting this DMCA thing first. Otherwise, it will get ugly.

You said you have got the complainant’s details. Is the person providing a real looking US/Western Country address and contact details? Abusing DMCA is a serious offence which can result in prison time. So, 99% of the time DMCA abusers use fake name and addresses based in countries like India, China or Russia. It’s because they know you won’t dream of suing someone in those countries. To add to the problem, big sites like Amazon and YouTube don’t verify the complainant’s identity at all. Anyway, in the next couple of days, it be clear where this is heading.

Thanks again for sending the updated novel. Am looking forward to reading it.

Best Regards

Kushal Das

There wasn’t much here to work with. “[I]t will get ugly” sounded like a threat, just as “you can let me know what Amazon is saying and I will see what can be done” had sounded like some kind of solicitation. But it was all vague.

I responded:

RE: Regarding Your DMCA Problem

Becca Mills <bccamlls@gmail.com>

Sun 3/1/2015 9:51 AM

Hi, Kushal. Wow, I hadn’t really thought about potential problems with uploading a revised edition right now. How come that would be bad? Would it upset Amazon?

It’s distressing to hear that companies like Amazon don’t make any effort to verify the complainant’s identity. I hadn’t realized that. It seems like that would open the door for all kinds of abuse. Some angry person using a fake name to file spurious DMCA notices against their ex-spouse — that kind of thing. And you’re right – I can’t think of any way to confirm the info Amazon sent me about the complainant. It could be fake, for all I know.

Well, I’ve written to the complainant. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’m still hoping this is a real reader who’s misunderstood the situation.

All the best,

Becca


I got the word out on Fb and my blog that Nolander was down due to an errant DMCA notice. Since I wanted to keep the dialogue with Kushal Das open, I kept most of what I knew out of those posts.


On March 1, a friend suggested I send Amazon and Smashwords a DMCA counter-notice. A counter-notice is a way of saying to an internet service provider (ISP), “Hey, this material doesn’t infringe anyone’s copyright, and I take responsibility for it.” After receiving a DMCA counter-notice, an ISP is supposed to restore the content within ten days—the matter is no longer their problem.

Of course, Amazon and Smashwords are not ISPs. They’re retailers. It could be that they aren’t bound by the requirement to restore the content they’ve taken down. Retailers can decide what products they want to sell, right? If they want to make those decision capriciously, who’s to stop them?

At any rate, I began drafting the counter-notice, using models I found online.

In researching the issue, I found that Kushal Das (not surprisingly … he/she should know) had been quite right in saying that DMCA notices can be and are used as weapons. Here are some articles and resources on the phenomenon. As you can see, none of them are quite like what’s happening to me. These abuses of the DMCA were motivated by ideology, commercial interests, and so forth. But what could motivate Kushal Das to attack a free book?


This morning, I sat down to my computer to think some more about the problem.

It occurred to me that filing a DMCA counter-notice is risky because, as I understand it, my counter-notice will be forwarded to Rajesh Lahoti/Kushal Das. Do I really want a document containing my full name, mailing address, and account-associated email address in the hands of this person?

I decided I would have to send the notice as “Becca Mills,” with my rented private mailbox as my contact info. It’s not optimal, but I don’t see another path forward.

I very much resent the idea that I might be forced to give identifying information to someone who has behaved fraudulently. Needless to say, I’ve frozen my accounts at the credit bureaus. What a drag.


At first I intended to tell this story after it had all been resolved. That’d be so much more satisfying, wouldn’t it? I planned to keep stringing Rajesh Lahoti/Kushal Das along by email until I figured out what’s motivating all this. And it sure would be nice to be able to report that DMCA counter-notices do work on ebook retailers.

But then I thought better of waiting. Trying to engage with a scammer is asking for trouble, and every day that goes by is a day Nolander is not getting into readers’ hands. The book was getting about twenty downloads a day and generating decent sell-through to the next in the series. Now my business model is in serious jeopardy (Amazon accounted for 68% of my writing income last month, and Barnes & Noble, where Nolander is free through Smashwords, accounted for another 5%).

Last but not least, indie authors need to know about this. And here’s the TL;DR: wholly fraudulent DMCA notices can be used maliciously against independent authors, and registering for U.S. copyright and submitting proof of copyright is not going to suffice as a defense.

Depending on how Amazon and Smashwords react to my counter-notice, we’ll see how well equipped online book retailers are to handle this form of fraud. It seems obvious to me that “you two go sort it out among yourselves” is not an appropriate position when the DMCA complainant is acting in a fraudulent, malicious way. Hopefully Amazon and Smashwords will see it that way as well.


P.S. Just after posting this, I got another email from Kushal Das:

Hi Becca,

Sorry for the late reply, have been very busy today. To confirm, yes, if you upload the new version, it will seriously create problems. Amazon might block it outright. Or even if the new version goes live, if the person who filed the complaint points out the new uploaded version, Amazon will then block it. Amazon will also automatically assume that you are trying to game the system by uploading a slightly modified version of the “plagiarized book”. 3 copyright blocks result in automatic KDP account termination, without any hearing or recourse. So you don’t want to reach 2 blocks.

Very few people realize how shockingly easy it is to abuse DMCA. Since complainants’ identity is never verified (unless you are complaining against a huge best selling author like Dan Brown), anyone holding a grudge against an author can ruin his /her book. Indies are especially vulnerable. It either happens if someone holds a personal grudge, like you pointed out or someone online finds the author’s religious or political views offensive. At least in case of YouTube, most DMCA abuse is related to religious, political or human rights (like gay rights) views.

Please do keep me updated. If it doesn’t get resolved within next couple of days, I will see what options are available for you.

One thing, since I live in a complete opposite time zone, I might take 12 – 24 hours to reply. Hope you don’t mind.

I wish you the best.

Thanks

Kushal

The guy’s good, eh? (Or “the person,” I should say — I keep reminding myself I have no way of knowing who Kushal Das really is, including their gender.) The information about Amazon being provided above might well be true and genuinely helpful. And it’s all so personable. If I hadn’t found that connection between Rajesh Lahoti’s email address and Kushal Das’s Warrior Forum presence, I might’ve packed away my suspicions.

I wonder what “options” Kushal Das would’ve offered me in a few days? Maybe a Nigerian-prince-style suggestion to send along my account numbers? Or maybe nothing. Maybe the point is just to have an inside view of my reactions as I watch my nascent writing career wither way.


P.P.S. Nolander is back up at Smashwords! A big thank you to Smashwords for a quick, personal, and effective response.

Based on what a Smashwords rep said, I think I know how Rajesh Lahoti/Kushal Das showed evidence of prior publication of the material in my book. Apparently, they pointed Smashwords to a 2011 blog post that contained material from Nolander. Now, I don’t think blogs are a good form of evidence. Here on WordPress, when I revise one of my posts, the platform doesn’t add an “edited” line. The post just keeps the original date. If that’s the way most blogging software works, it’d be very easy to use a blog post to “prove” prior making-public of someone else’s writing: you’d just delete the contents of an old post and fill it up with someone else’s book text. Then it’d look like you’d written the book yourself, years earlier.

Ebook retailers need to be on the lookout for this sort of thing, IMO.


Editing to add: At this point (March 4, 2015), quite a few people have told me that the major blogging platforms allow you to set the publication date of a post to whatever you’d like, including in the past. This means ebook retailers and other carriers of digital content need to be awfully careful about using blog posts as evidence of prior publication. Blog posts should be examined by folks with expertise in dating them, not accepted as prima facie evidence.


March 5: A sad update — KDP refuses to unblock Nolander.


Somewhat later on March 5: Good news! Nolander is back up Amazon. Thanks so much to everyone who helped me deal with this. :)


March 7: Aftermath for Nolander, and thoughts on how retailers could react to fraudulent DMCA notices more effectively.

The Individuality of Animals

Have you seen March of the Penguins? It’s a documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica that made a big splash (har, har) a few years ago. The penguins “nest” far from the sea (they don’t actually make nests) to avoid predators, but this means they’re far from their food source. Since getting to food requires a loooooong walk, the males incubate the eggs while the females leave for several months to feed. Then the females return, and the males get a turn to walk to the ocean and fish.

The whole thing is quite amazing, but one thing that really struck me is that, among all these thousands of penguins, the parents are able to recognize one another and their chicks with no problem. How? The males are generally a bit bigger than the females, but their markings are the same. They sound the same. They move the same. To me, emperor penguins look pretty much identical.

Recently, this video came across my Fb feed. ‘Cause, you know, I’m a bird-watcher, so delightfully geeky stuff like this tends to come my way.

If you’re like me, you were struck by the very clear differences among these blue jays (which are, by the way, one of my very favorite North American species). Once the video-maker begins to point them out — myriad differences in shades of blue, eye shape, black lines around the eyes, etc. — they’re obvious. But until she begins, they aren’t. Until watching this video, I would’ve thought blue jays were largely indistinguishable from one another.

It makes me wonder whether any animal species is really as homogeneous as I feel emperor penguins are. Probably not. Perhaps the perception of homogeneity is a symptom of outsiderness: when you’re looking what is other to you, you don’t notice the differences that the other easily sees in its own kind.

If that’s the case, I’d like to lose my outsiderness more often.