Stephen Gandel has written an interesting article for CNN titled Amazon’s knock-off problem, in which he looks at the phenomenon of books being released that have very similar titles to books that have recently been successful. The root of the problem is simple: if a book like Fifty Shades of Grey is a hit, you can bet there’ll be a rash of similarly-titled books that could confuse purchasers.
Gandel asks what Amazon can do about this problem, but the answer seems to be: not a lot. You can’t copyright a title, after all, although there are options for publishers if they can prove that there is a deliberate attempt at deception. For example, you could publish a book titled The Da Vinci Code tomorrow, if you wanted, but what you couldn’t do is describe it in such a way as to encourage or promote confusion. It’s a difficult, subjective issue and there are no easy answers. Allowing titles to be copyright would be a bad move, and to some extent there is still some protection in terms of the use of brand names. But you can see where the confusion might creep in.
As an Amazon spokesperson notes in Gandel’s article, they seek to remove books that don’t “improve the customer experience”. That’s a very vague term, possibly deliberately so, and it seems to be only partly working. This is the latest instalment of an overall quality control problem that Amazon was always going to face when it opened its doors to self-published authors. And the company does a very good job of mopping up obvious violators, even if it doesn’t (and can’t) catch them all. Perhaps if buyers did a little research before clicking the ‘Buy’ button, the problem wouldn’t be so huge?