Yesterday I was discussing a great book I'd read with a friend of mine, highly encouraging her to read it. It had been on the New York Times bestseller list in 1996, but let's face it: some books are great regardless of their initial release dates.
My friend turned to her mobile device, entered only a few keystrokes and the book instantly appeared on her screen.
"How did you do that so quickly?" I asked.
She explained that she entered "pdf" followed by the book title in a Google search engine (though any search engine would do). Up popped a website where the book had been converted to a PDF file, and with one click, she was able to read it for free in its entirety.
As you can imagine, I saw every color of the rainbow with this revelation. Authors, publishers and book stores (online or brick-and-mortar) do not get paid when a book is given away for free. And any book released over the last fifty years should be assumed to be copyrighted, unless the copyright holder has allowed it to lapse.
Later, I got out my iPad and began searching for my own book titles, followed by "pdf" in the search box. Sure enough, there were my earliest works - works that are still copyrighted, I hold the copyright, and yet there they were free for the taking.
Before I began writing full-time, I worked in the computer field. My specialties were computer crimes and computer intelligence. So I began investigating.
It didn't take long before I discovered that 100% of the websites offering my books for free were located in Russia, the Eastern Bloc (particularly the Ukraine), China and other countries that do not abide by U.S. laws. But that was not all that I found.
I discovered each of the files I investigated contained malicious software code - viruses, worms, trojans and bots.
The viruses could wreak havoc with any computer downloading the file. It can easily destroy information, overwrite legitimate files with malicious files, and propagate itself continuously, eventually making the computer unusable.
The worms were similar to the viruses, but they latched onto other legitimate software, extracting information from the software - information you don't want to share, such as user names and passwords and personal data.
The PDF files themselves are trojans. Trojans get their name from the method the Greeks used to infiltrate Troy's defenses - by delivering a trojan horse that contained warriors inside. The file looks legitimate - it appears to be an exact copy of a book, page by page - but it contains malicious software that, while the reader is reading away, it is busy extracting files, looking for passwords and personal data, and uploading the information to host computers halfway around the world.
In other words, it is stealing your identity, bit by bit.
A fourth malicious software I detected were bots. Bots got their name from robots, morphed into webbots, and finally simply called bots. They perform functions that humans normally would, but at lightning speed. For example, it could be labor intensive for a person to try and infiltrate another's computer and copy each of their email addresses out of their address books. But with a program to do it for them, while the reader is reading away, the bot is working in the background to extract each of the website addresses, which in turn serves as a server to send spam around the world. It can take mere seconds to accomplish.
Some of the files contained all four types of malicious software.
Are there really legitimate websites that allow a person to download a book for free, or are they all frauds?
There are legitimate websites. Before using a website, and most particularly before clicking on a link or downloading a file, check to see where the website is registered. It's a dead giveaway that the site is not legitimate if it's offering free books by U.S. authors out of the Ukraine or Russia. In one instance, I even found my books offered for free out of Australia - but the website was linked to others in China.
Second, look at the date the book was originally released. There are some books that are considered classics that were never copyrighted and are now in the public domain. In the United States, any work published prior to 1923 is considered in the public domain. If the author and/or publisher is located outside the United States, you must refer to that country's copyright law.
If the work was published between 1923 and 1963, the copyright had to be renewed every 28 years (U.S. law). A book that has had continued protection would list each of the copyright dates in the front matter. Each book had to contain the proper copyright notice and the copyright holder had to formally register it.
From 1964 through 1989, copyrighted books were deemed protected into the infinite future - meaning once it was copyrighted, it would always be considered copyrighted. The copyright holder had to complete formal copyright paperwork and the copyright notice had to be included in each book.
However, after March 1, 1989, copyright laws changed in the United States. Once the author puts pen to paper (or types the document), it is considered copyrighted. It does not need a formal copyright notice nor does it require formal copyright paperwork, though both are recommended to prevent the assumption that it is in the public domain. Works published after this date are copyrighted and protected throughout the life of the copyright holder (deemed to be the author unless otherwise noted) plus 70 years.
What does all this mean to you?
It means if you are downloading a free PDF copy of a book from an unknown source through the Internet, chances are the website is violating copyright laws - unless the book is considered in the public domain - meaning it was never copyrighted, is an old book whose copyright has expired, and was certainly released prior to 1964.
The only exception to this is if the copyright holder signed an agreement with the website to offer the work for free, which some authors do through legitimate sites - amazon, for example, often offers free eBooks because the copyright owner elected to allow readers to download it at no charge.
It also means if you're looking to get something for nothing, you might have just downloaded more than you bargained for.