There has been a great deal of commotion about Google’s controversial and potentially anti-competitive plans to digitalize millions of books, or the pricing war going on between Walmart, Target, and Amazon. It is surprising that only little attention has been paid to an even greater threat to authors and publishers by Scribd.com, a web site allowing the distribution of copyrighted documents, including digitalized versions of popular works such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
J.K. Rowling used the power of her legal team to have her works removed, but her focus was the protection of her intellectual property, not the financial damage. While big publishing houses or successful authors like J.K. Rowling can easily dismiss the financial loss, the situation becomes quickly explosive for small publishing businesses. For instance, BookLocker.com noticed more than 13,000 scribd.com users had “read” their best selling book, Cancer-Free, before the author was able to have his copyrighted material removed. Two of my books were listed for roughly six months – without my knowledge – and the loss of sales is roughly $20,000, with no chance to tackle a heavyweight like Scribd.
Scribd.com is not the only document-sharing web site, but with more than 50 million users and more than 50,000 document uploads per day, it appears they aim to be the YouTube for print. Scribd.com can most certainly be helpful for authors, publishers, and bookstores. They can upload their documents in their entirety and sell them for a good profit, or they can upload only an excerpt to wet the appetite of potential readers. The content on Scribd.com ranges from a majority of dull documents to a number of copyrighted books, fiction and non-fiction alike.
There are two sides to the problem: First, Scribd.com provides the means to upload copyrighted material without “editorial interference or approval”, thus creating financial damage to the publishing industry. Add to this that the majority of authors and publishers are still unaware of the issue.
Secondly, there are a number of publishing businesses – sleeping with the enemy – who believe in a strange marketing policy of allowing the free-of-charge viewing, reading, printing, and downloading of their published books for “a limited time”.
The absence of “editorial intervention and approval” in combination with a highly flawed sign-up process, however, encourages the crime. Scribd.com makes it very easy to sign up with a fake e-mail address. For instance, a user can sign up as email@example.com and then upload the latest Dan Brown, provided it exists in an electronic format. Scribd.com does not actively verify the users’ authority, and, in case of an illegal upload, they are usually unable to identify the perpetrator. Of course, they pop up a dialog window asking to confirm the rights to the document in question. But, seriously, criminal minds don’t care, and there are a great number of users who may be unaware of the consequence of their actions.
Removing copyrighted documents from the Scribd.com web site is easy, though – they promote this heavily as one of their “helpful features”. Scribd.com provides an e-mail template and the author or publisher fills in the appropriate information. It usually takes only a few days to process the request, but it also means that the document is still available for view, print, or download until the verification process is completed.
And even then, Scridb is still holding on to the document, meaning it is still stored in their database, which posts yet another legal problem because they store copyrighted documents without explicit authorization by the document’s owner. Officially, they use the existing copy to verify it against new uploads and thus prevent further copyright infringement.
I strongly suggest that each author and publisher check out the Scribd.com web site and search for names and titles. If your work is listed on Scribd.com, send an e-mail to copyright-at-scribd.com using the legal form they recommend. You will receive an automated response stating that your request has been received. They also encourage you to leave comments, and I dared doing just that, without being insulting. As a matter of fact, the person in charge at Scribd.com, their Customer Care Director, did not appreciate my feedback and closed the request immediately. I had to re-apply, and my book was finally removed from their web site.
The law firm of Camara & Sibley has decided to take on Scribd, seeking class action status against the site in a lawsuit filed in a Texas federal court. The charge: “Like YouTube, Veoh, and other user-generated content sites, Scribd makes it just too easy to upload copyrighted content without permission.”
Ironically, a copy of the lawsuit is available through the Scribd.com web site (Search for Scott v. Scribd Complaint).
Wilfried F. Voss was born and raised in Germany, but for the past twenty years his home and his heart have been in beautiful New England. He shares his birthday with celebrities like THE KING (Elvis Presley) and David Bowie, which is January 8 (not the same year, though). He has published three books on technical topics and is currently exploring another genre of writing, namely fiction writing. In Septmber of 2009 he published his first novel “The Bleeding Hills.”