On Wednesday, five major textbook publishers sued Shopify, accusing the Canadian e-commerce company of letting its vendors repeatedly commit digital piracy. This trademark and copyright infringement case was filed jointly by McGraw Hill, Pearson, Macmillan, Elsevier and Cengage.
Shopify, based in Ottawa, was first launched in 2006 as a platform to sell snowboarding equipment. It is now a mammoth enterprise with a market value of at least $180 billion, representing 1.75 million businesses. Textbook publishers have a significant infringement problem. Digital piracy costs them hundreds of millions per year in lost sales.
The plaintiffs claim that Shopify was sent legal notices weekly since 2017 that identify Shopify vendors who use the platform to commit book piracy. The lawsuit states that Shopify puts profits first, ignoring its legal obligations as it helps its subscribers to infringe.
Shopify released a statement saying that their merchants all agree to their acceptable use policy, which prohibits trademark and copyright infringement. They also said that more than 90 percent of infringement reports made so far this year were investigated within one business day.
The lawsuit states that the notices sent for years by publishers included subscribers’ store URLs that were infringing on their copyright, which amounted to hundreds of websites engaging in digital book piracy and many thousands of specific copyright and trademark infringement incidents. The lawsuit asserts that not only did Shopify give the offenders the tools they needed to run illicit businesses, but that they provided them with “anonymity, a false veneer of legitimacy, and a safe haven from which to break the law.”
Shopify’s services include web design, digital payments and fulfillment support, and shipping at bargain rates. The publishers claim in their legal action that Shopify helps to sell eBooks that are PDF documents of the publishers’ textbooks, sold from digital storefronts that Shopify helps vendors build. The lawsuit alleges that publishers’ legal representatives sent the platform more than 32,000 unique URLs pointing to infringement examples, and they are seeking statutory damages of $2 million per counterfeited trademark and $150,000 per infringed copyright—the maximum allowed by law.
A report by digital watermarking firm Digimarc found that in 2017, publishers lost $315 million in sales to eBook piracy.
What makes things even more challenging for textbook publishers are the already high prices for educational books and web-savvy students trying to find a cheaper way to get their classroom materials. In addition, many vendors on Shopify sell answer keys and solution manuals, not intended for students, which, according to professors, make the textbooks useless. And when publishers have to raise prices to make up for the lost income, they lose more customers.