Science Fiction writer take on Internet pirates, Part II

Glaskowsky continues his discussion of the SFWA vs. Scribd controversy.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
5 min read

CNET user jasonbentley replied to my blog post yesterday (here) with a thought-provoking comment:

It is egregiously disingenuous to name Flickr and then refuse to name Scribd, which you've annointed a "pirate site," completely missing the fact that Flickr is *full* of copyrighted content (and a lot of content that's not).

Update, 3 September: I have learned that Jason Bentley is Director of Community Development at Scribd. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "disingenuous" as "Not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating." I'd say that definition applies to this kind of astroturfing. So someone from Scribd is seeking to deflect attention away from the massive piracy going on at his company by throwing mud at Flickr. Interesting. But anyway, Bentley's points deserve to be addressed.

I suppose I was making a point by declining to name the site that was the subject of my post: I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't trying to send people running off to this site to download pirated works.

I have to admit-- I wasn't aware that Flickr was having a problem with copyrighted material. I browse Flickr from time to time and I've never seen any obvious copyright violations there... but now that I've heard this from jasonbentley and from Cory Doctorow (in an email comment he sent me on Saturday), I suppose I have to accept that it may be the case, at least for the sake of argument.

However, it doesn't take more than a few minutes of browsing Scribd to stumble across pirated content. For example, if you search Scribd for "science fiction," four of the hits on the first page of results appear to be pirated works.

There are two different copies of "Gold," an Isaac Asimov anthology. There's a Ben Bova essay. And then there's another anthology with a story by Isaac Asimov. (Did SFWA's overly broad search really miss three pieces of pirated Asimov material, or has Scribd just been slow at taking them down? Two of these pieces have been on Scribd since May 9; the other dates back to June 30.)

It's theoretically possible that these four works are now in the public domain, but they do carry copyright notices, so I think that's unlikely. One of the users who uploaded "Gold" also uploaded hundreds of other copyrighted works-- maybe over a thousand, I didn't bother counting.

Let's say you're looking for scholarly papers analyzing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Gotta be a common activity on a site like Scribd, right? Alas, Scribd doesn't make this as easy as it could be, because most of the hits from a search for "Tolkien" are the writer's own works, stolen and illegally republished by Scribd users-- many of them by the same thief who uploaded the Asimov book. You know it's bad when the illegal postings get in the way of the legal research papers. (I know the United States copyright status of Tolkien's works was in dispute years ago, but I'm pretty sure all that was resolved in favor of the writer's estate. If not, please leave a comment.)

How shameful is it that Scribd doesn't notice hundreds of commercial works uploaded by a single user-- many with copyright notices intact-- and leaves such things online for so long? Doesn't Scribd bear any responsibility beyond merely responding passively to DMCA notices? That isn't a purely rhetorical question; I'll get back to it in a minute.

But before I go on, I want to say that it looks like Scribd is cleaning up its act. From what I've been told and what I've seen, Scribd has removed thousands of pirated works just in the last couple of weeks. I'm told that essentially every book by every major science-fiction writer could be found there until just recently, but today, I found only six definite Heinlein books on Scribd. That's still terrible, but it's less terrible than I'm told it used to be.

I'm also heartened by Scribd's involvement with the EFF, which is well known for its consistent support for individual rights, including intellectual-property rights. I have no doubt that the EFF will help Scribd understand how to more fully comply with the Safe Harbor provisions of the DMCA.

That brings me back to my next point. According to various summaries online (including this one on Wikipedia), the Safe Harbor section of the DMCA doesn't merely require that online service providers like Scribd respond to takedown notices. Here are a few other key requirements as listed in that Wikipedia article.

To obtain the safe harbor the OSP must:
  • not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system or network is infringing (512(c)(1)(A)(1))
  • not be aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent (512(c)(1)(A)(2))
  • accommodate and not interfere with standard technical measures used to identify and protect copyrighted works (512(i)(1)(B))

Now, I'm not an EFF lawyer (or any other kind) but it seems to me that Scribd has learned by now that its bulk uploading feature has been used to commit widespread copyright violations, and that its search function makes that infringing activity entirely apparent. I was astounded to realize earlier today that Scribd openly invites anonymous bulk uploading, right there on the front page: "Bulk upload your own docs now! No signup." DMCA notifications seem superfluous.

Let me make something clear. I get paid by CNET for writing this blog, but they don't pay me to express particular opinions. (And frankly, I don't get paid much; I'm really not doing this for money.) If I learned that CNET was being conspicuously careless with other people's intellectual property, I would criticize it appropriately in my blog, even if that meant CNET would end our agreement. But I've watched CNET work for a long time and I'm pretty satisfied with CNET's sense of propriety, so I don't think that's going to happen.

As long as I'm here, I'm just going to keep writing about interesting stories in our industry, adding my opinions where appropriate. I'll do my best to be accurate, fair, and responsible for what I say. That's my commitment to my employer, to CNET, and to you, my readers.

Also see the conclusion to this saga... for now.