A popular fantasy fiction series went viral this week after Twitter and Reddit posts showed the copyright page which tries to ban people from sharing the book with anyone, telling them to buy more copies instead, a clause that one expert said would be “laughed out of court.”
Zodiac Academy: The Awakening was self-published by Caroline Peckham and Susanne Valenti in 2019 and has since garnered more than 28,000 ratings on Amazon and is the bestseller under the category “Werewolves and Shifters Suspense.” The pair have since published eight more books in the Zodiac Academy series. Some readers noticed on the copyright page an odd and disconcertingly aggressive warning not to share the books, an especially curious clause considering things such as "libraries," used bookstores, and the long and storied tradition of book lending among friends.
“This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only,” the copyright page says. “This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it wasn’t purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.”
A tweet with a photo of this copyright notice with the caption “This sucks. Half the joy of having a good book is lending it to a friend” got 3.5 million views in 24 hours since it was posted.
The language went viral in part because of the EULA-fication of everything and end of ownership rights across a series of products that people have traditionally shared, resold, or used according to the whims of the person who bought that item. End User License Agreements that restrict ownership have showed up on printer ink, seeds, fruits, tractors, software, speakers, and now, books.
The notice is “completely and utterly unenforceable under U.S. copyright law,” University of Michigan law professor and coauthor of the book The End of Ownership Aaron Perzanowski told Motherboard. “The law on this has been clear for over a century, ever since the Supreme Court decided a case called Bobbs-Merrill v. Straus in 1908. And the Court reaffirmed the rule that you can’t restrict the resale of physical books just a few years back in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. It’s not a remotely close call.” The fact that they are based in the UK changes little because UK law also recognizes the same legal principle of exhaustion, meaning that once a book is sold the publisher cannot control subsequent sale.
Perzanowski added that if the authors or publishers tried to enforce this clause they would be “laughed out of court” and their lawyers “should probably be subject to sanctions.”
It is not clear any lawyers were involved in the Do Not Share clause writing. The authors, Peckham and Valenti, provided a statement to Motherboard that said, “The ‘Do Not Share’ notice found in previous (and now unpublished) versions of Zodiac Academy was a general copyright statement added by our formatter without our knowledge and was intended as an anti-piracy statement.” The language is only on the paperback copyright page, not the Kindle Unlimited version, and still appears in the Look Inside preview on Amazon for the ninth book in the series.
The authors “take full accountability for not checking the copyright page of our books prior to publication, and have learned from this experience,” they told Motherboard in a statement. They added “We are in full support of libraries and loaning books between friends, and it is truly upsetting to us that this piece of text has allowed such misinformation to spread when it was intended to refer to piracy.” Piracy is a big problem in the self-publishing industry but it is already illegal, so it’s not clear how including a new clause, much less a legally unenforceable one, would do anything to deter it.
The formatter of the series was Sloane Murphy who works for Hudson Indie Ink, a firm that helps authors self-publish their books, as its formatter. Murphy is also an author and her book, Luna Rising, A Rejected Mates Romance, has the same Do Not Share language on its copyright page, according to Amazon’s Look Inside feature. Stephanie Hudson of Hudson Indie Ink said in a statement to Motherboard that they “have nothing and have never had anything to do with the content or preparation of their books including the formatting” and that Murphy works as a freelance formatter.
Even though this is hardly the case of overzealous corporate lawyers trying to re-write copyright law, it reflects long-standing concerns about the broader trend in digital media and entertainment away from ownership. The rise of end user licenses and agreements and growth of e-books and streaming services mean so much of what we possess are no longer things we own. Objects can be rendered useless with a software update and even things as innocuous as grapes come with end user agreements. The fact that the Do Not Share provision is legally garbage doesn’t mean it’s innocuous; it may well have a chilling effect, especially on people who don’t know the finer points of copyright law.
“More generally, this is evidence of the sort of brain rot that has seeped into copyright law since courts started accepting the legal fiction of licensed copies of software programs,” Perzanowski said.”It’s corrosive and inconsistent with the basic notion of personal property. This kind of tactic deserves scorn and shame, so I’m glad to see the author and publisher of Zodiac Academy getting the attention they deserve.”
Update: This article has been updated to include a statement from Hudson Indie Ink.