Know Your Enemy

Since the launch of their eBook subscription service in 2013, Scribd has been receiving a lot of attention, both positive and negative. On January 9th, 2014, an article by Calvin Reid appeared in Publishers Weekly in response to a recent blog post by Michael Capobianco on Writer Beware.

Capobianco’s post was highly critical of the new model, in two primary respects. First, Capobianco reflects on the confusing royalty structure, which is based partly on standard eBook royalty rates of 25%, and partly on the percentage read for each book. That is, if a subscriber downloads a book, but reads less that 30% of it, no “sale” is counted, and the author does not receive any royalty (this is Capobianco’s analysis, not mine). Second, Capobianco criticizes piracy problems that have remained unresolved since the copyright infringement lawsuit launched in 2009 against Scribd.

In the Reid article, he recaps the response from Scribd’s VP of Content Acquisition, Andrew Weinstein. Weinstein acknowledges the existence of pirated material within their subscription service, but insists that Scribd is not encouraging illegal uploads. He explains that Scribd is working with publishers to develop digital fingerprint software that will prevent unauthorized content from appearing on their site. For Weinstein, the difficulty with this process is the sheer volume of works, most of which are not recognized by the software. Finally, he expresses a desire to change Scribd’s damaged reputation by becoming more public about their efforts to eliminate copyright infringement.

Reid’s article does two things very well. First, he gives voice to Scribd. Capobianco’s post, while in many respects is justified, is harsh. It raises many concerns about the subscription’s implications for authors and readers. By contacting Scribd, Reid allows Weinstein a chance to defend Scribd against Capobianco’s accusations. Capobianco, afterall, has limited access to Scribd’s operating policies. Reid gives Scribd a chance to show the steps they are taking to resolve many of the issues raised in the blog post, while demonstrating that Weinstein is being realistic about the problems he and his company are facing. Second, Reid exposes a major flaw in the proposed copyright fingerprint system. He recognizes the extreme limitations of building fingerprints from publishers’ files, because this means that Scribd cannot recognize infringed material unless the publisher has already sent them the original file.

While I support Reid’s efforts in the above regards, I take issue with two other aspects of the article. It concludes with a final quote from Capobianco in response to Weinstein’s defence:

“despite Scribd efforts, there are still many, many pirated works available through their service, and it’s troubling that they have included them, along with other works uploaded by users, in their paid subscription service.” Capobianco added, “I am amazed that they 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.”

It is troubling, yes. I, too, hope Scribd removes all copyright violations. However, Capobianco’s secondary arguments are unjust. His twofold claim—that Scribd is deliberately and “boldly” capitalizing on piracy, and that publishers “don’t care”— is an ungrounded and unfair accusation. Scribd is in the process of developing a kind of digital rights management software, which is gruelling and expensive endeavor. They are working with publishers, using the publishers’ files to ensure those works are not illegally uploaded in the future. It is unlikely that publishers are turning a blind eye; it is more likely that they are taking proactive steps to prevent copyright violations of their published material.

The second concern I have about these articles is this: both Reid and Capobianco fail to acknowledge that piracy is not a new problem. Both blame Scribd for piracy, but in doing so, they are both misrepresenting the situation. Scribd is not the enemy. I agree that they are in the middle of a serious problem. Pirated material exists on their site, and they need to be held accountable for allowing this material to exist. However, the real problem is piracy itself. Book pirating has existed for centuries, and perhaps piracy, in general, will just always be a problem.

I’m certainly not arguing that Scribd’s hands are clean, but that we must remember they are fighting a much larger matter.

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