For better or worse, the self-published erotic trilogy 50 Shades of Grey is now a bona fide smash, attracting a seven figure deal from Random House and plans for a movie. No surprise then, it’s also spawning a spate of imitations and borderline rip-offs.
As Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks noted on Twitter, a would-be parody of 50 Shades of Grey called 50 Shades of Black & Blue by I B Naughtie (ha ha) has risen to #41 on the Amazon Kindle Store’s UK Bestseller list despite terrible reviews. Not far behind it is another “parody” called 50 Shades of Red, White & Blue by Maggie Muff (again, ha ha).
In the case of the “Black & Blue” parody, the customer reviews are beyond scathing. Readers blast the work as unfunny, badly written and too short or else complain that they purchased it by mistake. Reviews for its comedic competitor are better (though one wonders about their legitimacy — i.e., “I have read many many books but i have never ever came across one as funny as this.”)
In the bigger picture, the 50 Shades imitators raise questions about how digital authors and Amazon will respond to the problem of parody in the e-book age. Rip-offs masquerading as parodies are nothing new, of course — recall the late JD Salinger’s recent lawsuit to shut down “60 Years Later: Coming through the Rye.” The problem is that real parody is an essential element of free expression and that courts are rightfully reluctant to use copyright law to suppress genuine social commentary.
In the past, a parody publisher had to invest considerable money into printing costs while the publisher of the original could go to court to challenge any blatant rip-offs. Now it costs next to nothing for an opportunist to quickly publish a thin imitation of a bestseller and then slap a “parody” label on it (and hide beyond the shield of free expression). Meanwhile, the original author is unlikely to have the legal resources to challenge a dozen instant imitators.
This leaves the question of Amazon’s role in policing parodies. The company already has a spotty track record in screening for out-and-out forgeries, but that is a different issue from the parody question. Amazon should not have to be in a position of deciding the tricky legal question of what is a parody and what is not. The solution may instead lie in the retailer employing an authentication service that highlights original works and slaps disclaimers on imitators.