Scribd profits from rampant piracy, so why are publishers negotiating deals with them?
In a post on the Writer Beware blog, Michael Capobianco voices his concerns about Scribd’s new “All you can read” $8.95/month subscription service — and the deals negotiated by publishers with a company long known for doing little to combat piracy:
Just for the moment, let’s assume it is an okay deal for many authors. It’s tremendously better than the deal offered to musicians by music subscription services like Pandora and Spotify. Even so, this paradigm switch should be scrutinized with great care. It’s another instance of rich corporations expanding what can be done with authors’ works without consulting them, defining terms in such a way that no one really understands how it affects authors’ copyrights, and doing so based on language in contracts that never anticipated an e-book subscription service. Authors need to sit up and take notice, and protest if they think their rights are being abrogated. If it’s not a great deal–which, let’s face it, is likely, given the insistence of the major publishers on paying at most a 25% net royalty rate on e-books–all the more reason for concern.
Capobianco then asks some pointed questions about Scribd’s ongoing piracy problems, especially given their apparent willingness to monetize that piracy:
As you can see, this unauthorized copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, was illegally uploaded by Vladimir George Anghell, and Scribd is using it as bait for a 7-day free trial of their subscription service, that will, of course, transition automatically to a paid subscription if I do not cancel.
Think about it. All across the Scribd website, there are illegally uploaded, copyrighted files that you can only read in their entirety if you start paying Scribd, which doesn’t pay authors anything for those uploads. Almost as bad are the advertisements displayed next to pirated works.
In a Publisher’s Weekly interview, Scribd’s VP of Content Acquisition admitted the piracy problem.
Unfortunately, my 27 years in marketing have made me cycnical, so I wasn’t comforted by the way he qualified his “we’re fixing it” statement with enough weasel phrases to stock a petting zoo (favorites include repeated uses of “…a while” and “We’ve done a lot of work…”).
Ultimately, it’s clear Scribd’s real “defense” against piracy is to simply offload the burden of enforcement on authors:
Weinstein readily acknowledged the problem while outlining the extent and, difficulty of preventing, illegal uploads. Weinstein was also emphatic that “it’s not true” that Scribd was out to “incentivize” the uploading of illegal content. “There is unauthorized content on Scribd,” he said, “the problem dates back a while and I’ve been working with publishers on this for a while.” Weinstein said that while Scribd has not talked publicly about it—“we’ve tried to deal with it on an individual basis with take-down notices and in our new agreements with publishers”—he said, “we’ve done a lot of work on developing a technological solution to this and a process to deal with bad content on Scribd.”
Most note that while Scribd typically removes pirated work after the copyright holder locates it and files the appropriate takedown notice, they rarely punish pirates or remove other uploads coming from the same account.
Pirated books also reappear on the service as fast as they’re removed (so much for Scribd’s “fingerprinting” technology), and many writers — citing the never-ending time suck of searching online services and filing takedown notices — have simply given up policing Scribd.
Many of the writers in those comments simply shrug off piracy issues as intractable, but the truth is that Scribd could do a lot more to prevent piracy.
But why would Scribd invest in costly anti-piracy measures (hire staff to review book-length uploads for obvious piracy, implement a working fingerprint system, yadda yadda) when they can simply externalize the costs of intellectual property enforcement by switching the burden to writers? Isn’t externalizing costs the goal of every corporation?
Why are publishers so accepting of a company whose business model encourages piracy — and even profits from it?
It seems the creative class — musicians, photographers, writers — have developed something of an inferiority complex, at least in the face of technology companies.
As Capobianco notes:
I am amazed that they [ED: Scribd] do this so boldly, and that the legitimate publishers who are offering books through their subscription service apparently don’t care. I hope Scribd re-evaluates its policies and removes all unauthorized versions of copyrighted works from its subscriber service.
We’re told that opposing these companies is to get steamrolled by Inevitable Market Forces (Manifest Destiny lives!), as if these technologies — and the companies that profit from them — sprang fully formed from the earth.
The Internet is a human construct; we build it, and more importantly, we create the expectations and legal framework surrounding it. Right now, the expectation is that tech companies will hide the extent of the data they gather about you and profit from the content generated by others, and there won’t be much in the way of outcry.
Like musician David Lowery, I’d suggest the creative class is meekly accepting situations which — years from now — will cause us to look back and wonder what the hell we were thinking.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.
(Note: Oyster offers a monthly book subscription service similar to Scribd’s, yet without the piracy issues.)