Writer Sarah Stankorb is one such author. This summer, she published Disobedient Women: How a Small Group of Faithful Women Exposed Abuse, Brought Down Powerful Pastors, and Ignited an Evangelical Reckoning. Summaries appeared on Amazon within days. One, which she suspects was based on an advance copy commonly distributed to reviewers, appeared the day before her book came out.
Stankorb was aghast. Disobedient Women was the product of years of careful reporting. “It’s disturbing to me, and on multiple moral levels seems wrong, to pull the heart and sensitivity out of the stories,” she says. “And the language—it seemed like they just ran it through some sort of thesaurus program, and it came out really bizarre.”
Comparing the texts side by side, the imitation is blatant. Stankorb’s opening line: “In my early days reporting, I might do an interview with a mompreneur, then spend the afternoon poring over Pew Research Center stats on Americans disaffiliating from religion.” The summary’s opening line: “In the early years of their reporting, they might conduct a mompreneur interview, followed by a day spent delving into Pew Research Center statistics about Americans who had abandoned their religious affiliations.” Reality Defender rated the summary of Stankorb’s book as 99 percent likely AI-generated.
When Mitchell found out about her own AI imitator, she vented in a post on X, asking, “Is this legal?” Now, she has doubts she could successfully take anyone to court over this. “You can’t copyright the title of a book, I’ve been told,” Mitchell says. Usure of whether she has any recourse, she hasn’t contacted Amazon.
Some copyright scholars say that a summary is legal as long as it refrains from explicit word-for-word plagiarism. Kristelia Garcia, an intellectual property law professor at Georgetown University, draws a comparison with the original blockbusters of the summary world: CliffsNotes, the longrunning study guide series that provides student-friendly explanations of literature.
“CliffsNotes aren’t legal because they’re fair use. They’re legal because they don’t actually copy the books. They just paraphrase what the book is about,” Garcia says via email.
Other IP experts aren’t so sure. There’s a big difference, after all, between CliffsNotes—which provide substantive analysis of a book in addition to summarizing it and are written by humans—and this newer wave of summaries clogging up Amazon. “Simply summarizing a book is harder to defend,” says James Grimmelmann, a professor of internet law at Cornell University. “There is still substantial similarity in the selection and arrangement of topics and probably some similarity in language as well.”
Rasenberg of the Authors Guild sees a 2017 case where Penguin Random House sued authors who created children’s editions of its titles as a precedent that could help writers fight AI-generated summaries. The court found that the children’s summaries were not legal, because they were primarily devoted to retelling copyrighted stories.
Until an author actually files a lawsuit against the creator of one of these new generation summaries, their legality remains an open question. And although Amazon did take down Mitchell’s summary, it has not announced plans to proactively monitor this wave of summaries. “I hate that this is the new reality, but it would likely take a significant and recurring PR nightmare for a change in policy to occur at Amazon,” Friedman says.
Right now, there’s nothing much stopping the next AI ebook hustler from creating a new summary and uploading it tomorrow. “It’s ridiculous that Amazon doesn’t seem to be doing much to stop it,” Mitchell says. Then again, the publishing industry doesn’t seem to know quite how to handle this, either. Mitchell remembers the resigned way her agent responded when she wrote to her about the AI imitation: “This is just the new world we’re living in.”