On February 27, 2020, an unusual novel topped the list of Qidian, the author get more than 80, 000 yuan (about 11,441 USD) from several pirated websites within hours. How did this happen?

To explain how this event happened, we need to have a brief understanding of the ecology of online literature in China.

Chinese online literary works are generally in a state of serialization for a long time, and it may take several years for a novel to meet its readers for the first time to its final end. In the process, the popularity of novels is rising, and the author will set most of the novels to be read for a fee. After the author updates them daily or weekly, its readers need to log on to sites such as Qidian and pay a fee to read the latest updates.

But pirated sites can significantly reduce authors’ revenue, as pirated sites offer free versions a few minutes after the author updates the novel on the original site. In Baidu, a Chinese search engine, enter the name of an online novel, and the first search results are often not genuine novels but links to pirated sites, which have better SEO and are clicked by more users in the search results.

How do pirated websites get updates to novels from genuine websites that use digital rights management? The answer is web crawlers and a little artificial intelligence.

Demonstration of pirated online literature websites

In the field of Chinese online literature, the competition of pirated websites is very fierce. Because you only need thousands of yuan to buy a set of pirated website solutions about online literature. Using these solutions requires only a little technical knowledge.

In general, these solutions provide a web crawler robot, where users simply fill in the address of the novel they want to grab on a genuine website and provide paid accounts that automatically capture the latest updates to the novel locally. After that, the anti-piracy information from the data can be removed through OCR and can be published to its own pirated website.

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Pirated websites are set up outside China to evade police tracking and generate revenue through advertising. Original authors and online literary websites cost a lot of money to crack down on these sites, and the results are not always very good. Because it is impossible to track the identity of the operator of a pirated site, a new site will appear hours after a site is DMCA takendown.

The whole process is fully automatic, does not need any manual participation, very efficient, this is the problem.

The author, named Bug in Flower, set up his own Qidian account this month and began to serialize a novel called Cordyceps sinensis Records. The novel says this is the story of a Cordyceps elves absorbing the essence of the sun and moon to become a fairy. After updating several chapters of the novel, the author obtains the right to charge the reader.

fake novel Cordyceps sinensis Records

In the early hours of February 27, the author began using robots to brush his novels, and in a very short period of time the book became the top of several lists on the Qidian. On the other hand, the author used artificial intelligence to generate 27 million words of nonsense content, which was added to the novel at once.

The robot of the pirated website discovered the work that quickly made the popular list in a fully automatic process and began to “re-produce” the piracy of the novel. In order for web crawlers to get the content of the whole novel correctly, these web crawlers often use accounts that have been stored at a certain cost and automatically bought recent updates.

According to the general price of Qidian, you have to pay 10 cents per thousand Chinese characters to read. This means that the robot that grasps the novel in its entirety will have to pay at least 27,000 yuan. And they get just a bunch of pointless content, because no real reader patronizes pirated sites to read the novel.

Purchase records of robot users

By the time Qidian got off the shelves, 67 robots had spent a total of 80,400 yuan on the paid part of the novel.

This is clearly a violation of Qidian rules, but it has taught pirated website operators a lesson that has been praised in the circle of Chinese online literature authors.

According to Qidian rules, if a paid novel is fraudulent, readers can file a complaint to get a refund. However, this process needs to be accepted manually, and for pirated website operators, if a complaint is filed for a web crawler account, it means revealing the identity of their own pirates, which may lead to their legal liability.