Friday, September 4, 2009

"Steal This Book" (21st century style) by Scribd

My fellow children of the 60s will recognize the title of Abbie Hoffman's famous 1970 book, a classic guide for the counter-cultural revolution of the time. Today, a new group of would be revolutionaries have also made their home in that birthplace of the hippie movement - San Francisco. And, in a sadly ironic way, just like Abbie Hoffman they are also providing a lesson on how to live for free... at least as far as your literary wants are concerned.

The name of this new group? Well, this ain't the 60s anymore is it, so it should be no surprise that their "revolution" is digital. They're a VC-funded bunch called Scribd.

Consider these two scenarios:

First Scenario. 20th century. Pre- "digital revolution".

You walk into a local bookshop carrying a copy of an engineering text that you found to be particularly interesting and helpful in your work, let's say it's called High Speed Analog-to-Digital Conversion. :-)

You liked this book so much that you want to "share" it with the world. Now, you know that this shop actually sells books, but money just complicates things doesn't it? So you give it to the proprietor and tell him he can duplicate as many copies as he wants, and just give them away... for free!

Sound plausible? Think that the proprietor jumps on the opportunity to copy and give away books? Just think about how it would increase traffic to his shop when people hear about this!

There's just one thing to check first. See, there's this little issue called the Copyright Act, and it prohibits unauthorized duplication for 95 years!
A Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly, or to display the copyrighted work publicly.
So this scenario is highly improbable. No respectable bookshop owner would risk violating copyrights by printing unauthorized duplicates. That would be illegal, not to mention unethical.

Second Scenario. 21st Century. Post- "digital revolution"

You've got that same book, and even though it's been around for nearly twenty years it's still pretty interesting. And you'd love to share it. But what's a local bookshop? Do you mean Barnes & Nobles, where you can get a coffee and read magazines for free? They don't have engineering books!

And besides, all you have to do is scan the book into a pdf file. Or, maybe you've already got an ebook. So off to the internet you go. You used to share your music on Napster, so there must be a place like that for books.

Welcome to Scribd! All you need is an anonymous email address to signup, and then you're free to upload. Ignore that little WARNING: Do not upload copyrighted material for which you don't own the rights or have permission from the owner. You know they're not going to check.

Sound plausible? Think that Sribd jumps on the opportunity to copy and give away books? Just think about how it would increase traffic to their site when people hear about this!

Heck yeah they do! They even give you a desktop uploader so that you can do it in bulk!

So here's the deal. Scribd is a startup that claims to have a mission to "to turn everyone into a publisher". Here's what they say about themselves:

Scribd began with a simple observation — that the desire for self-expression through the written word is as old as humanity itself. But even with the proliferation of blogs and other self-publishing tools, there was no easy way for average people to publish to a readership of millions.

Today, Scribd is the largest social publishing company in the world — the website where more than 60 million people each month discover and share original writings and documents.

It's that little "original" part that they seem to have forgotten about.

Lest you think this is just another file sharing site, it's not. You see, the geniuses behind Scribd came up with something they call "iPaper" Maybe Apple will sue them over that one (Please??). They don't just allow you to share your files, they convert them for you by using Adobe Flash! No need to install Acrobat, or do any download to read a purloined publication. No sir! Now, the book just appears on your screen instantly. Fantastic! That's exactly how I found a scanned black & white copy of my book on Scribd.

Inc. magazine called Scribd one of the "red-hot Web 2.0 companies". I suppose they had no idea how "hot" much of the material they distribute is.

Of course, the Scribd guys won't acknowledge that they are allowing unauthorized uploads and free downloads as a means to drive traffic to their site. No, they are hiding behind the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), claiming to be 100% compliant.

I have invoked DMCA myself in the past, to stop an individual in India who was blatantly copying my blog and putting his name on it. That's fine as a tool for removing content after the fact, but a DMCA complaint can only be filed by the copyright holder. Unless you self-publish your book, you typically do not own the copyrights.

All major commercial publishers require authors to assign them copyright in return for a royalty contract. A DMCA complaint applies to just one specific piece of "infringing material". The copyright holder (Elsevier in my case), would need to file a DMCA complaint for every single unauthorized uploaded file. That's not very efficient, and Sribd knows it. They may just get sued though, that's what finally shut down Napster.

Here's what's different in this case. Scribd is not just storing content, they are in effect "re-printing" it... on iPaper! Every file that users upload on Scribd goes through this conversion process, so that "readers no longer have to download files or extra software to view your documents".

Why doesn't Scribd scan the files for copyright assignments? I did exactly that on the copy of my book that I pulled down from Scribd. If they are smart enough to develop a conversion process using Adobe Flash, then they are also smart enough to use the optical character recognition (OCR) functions built into Acrobat. I took the scanned file, ran OCR, and searched for "Copyright". Simple!

If Scribd is truly concerned about copyright violations, they should put the onus on those doing the upload to prove they have ownership, not those whom they violate. Prevention is always preferable to detection, and these copyright violations can be easily prevented.

I believe that Scribd is being dishonest by claiming DMCA compliance while ignoring, and even encouraging, distribution of illegally copied works. Why is there even a "free" book section on Scribd? Free excerpts.. fine. But free books? What legitimate publisher gives away books? Scribd doesn't even require a login to read the books.

There were ~120 people who read my book on Scribd before I notified the publisher, and the publisher notified Scribd to take it down. Sadly, that is many more than have purchased the book in recent years. However, it is gratifying to see the book is still for sale - at a price in the U.S. $129.

That means that Scribd stole more than $15,000 from Elsevier, and my percentage royalty from me in the process.

Think this might be an isolated case? I did a search on Scribd based on these criteria:

  • Search term: "mcgraw hill"
  • Search category: Books
  • Size: 100+ pages
  • Price: "Free Only"
  • Format: PDF

  • The results? There are 307 free McGraw-Hill books on Scribd. How many do you think McGraw-Hill put there?
    (Hint: There were only 3 matches when I changed my search to "Purchase Only", and ZERO of the 3 were actually published by McGraw-Hill)

    To Be Continued

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