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Google rewards original reporting, SFWA 'caves,' Scribd straightens up

It's been a long weekend of copyright-related new, ending with a Google deal and an announcement by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

It's been only a week since I blogged (here) about a proposal from author Peter Wayner that Google should reward original content creators by diminishing the search ranking of unauthorized copies.

According to news reports, Google News has already gone one step further, agreeing with four wire services (The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, The Canadian Press, and The Press Association in the United Kingdom) to start hosting their stories directly on Google News-- thus diminishing a source of links to independent newspaper versions of their wire stories.

This wasn't what Wayner or I had in mind; I figured Google should just stop sending traffic over to sites reprinting content without permission. These newspapers certainly had permission; they were paying for this content. But at least this shows that Google has the technology to distinguish between original and reprinted content.

There has been no formal announcement on Google's own Press Center, but the story was widely reported over the weekend after Google's Josh Cohen mentioned the deal on his blog (here).

Ironically, when I started collecting links on Monday evening, coverage of the story on Google News led off with a Financial Times wire story that was reprinted by MSN Money. The original version of the story was hidden behind a pay wall on the Financial Times site.

The fallout continues over the SFWA/Scribd flap I covered over the weekend (in "SFWA vs. the Pirates of the Internet" on Saturday and "SFWA vs. the Pirates of the Internet, Part II" on Sunday).

SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) announced on its Web site on Monday that its board voted to disband its ePiracy Committee (chaired by Andrew Burt). The board intends to find out what the SFWA membership wants SFWA to do about copyright education and enforcement, and then create a new committee to implement these wishes.

My friend, SF author and former SFWA President Jerry Pournelle weighed in on this decision (here, on, describing it as "caving" in to the pirates who have been using Web sites such as with very little control. Pournelle's pithy translation of the SFWA announcement:

Authors, you are on your own; SFWA will no longer act for you in defense of your electronic rights.

I think maybe Pournelle was being too tough on SFWA. He knows the people involved, and I don't, but I still hope they were being sincere in announcing those plans...and will actually carry them out.

See, I'm concerned that if piracy of the written word is allowed to get out of control today, there will be no opportunity for the electronic book market to develop properly. Only a small fraction of books currently in print are also sold in electronic form, mostly because there's still no good way for most people to read electronic books. Yes, some people have the Sony PRS-500 Reader or other purpose-built devices. Some people read books on laptops or smart phones. But these are not mainstream solutions. Sony's Reader is too expensive (and too fragile, as I learned recently); laptops are awkward; smart phones are too small.

This will change soon. I think that within three years, we'll see a passable $49 e-book reader. Within five years, that price point will support a pretty nice product. And that's when publishers should be ready to offer essentially all of their titles in electronic form.

But there's no way they're going to do that if they know all this content will end up on pirate Web sites within a few days or hours. That's why it's important for SFWA--and other authors' organizations, and publishers' associations, and even agents for the more successful individual writers--to stay on the case, keeping these sites from developing active pirate communities.

So while the SFWA announcement disappoints me (I wish they'd said something more along the lines of, "We're sorry we screwed up on a handful of legally posted documents, but we're also proud we've taken thousands of pirated works offline. We're not going to give up until the pirates do"), I'm heartened to see that Scribd is starting to do its moral duty.

Scribd has taken down all of the uploads by one particular scofflaw user I mentioned here on Sunday without waiting for individual DMCA notices. This action is in stark contrast to the claim by Scribd Director of Community Development Jason Bentley in a comment to my Sunday blog that "to proactivly [sic] remove material without a legal request puts Scribd outside the protection of the DMCA." That claim never made sense; the DMCA doesn't force sites to tolerate piracy, and Scribd's terms have always prohibited posting pirated content. Finally, this prohibition is starting to be enforced.

Scribd still has work to do. A search for "science fiction" on the site still returns some pirated works. Two of the documents I mentioned here on Sunday are gone, but two more are still available. Many of the unauthorized copies of Tolkien works are still there, too.

But it took Scribd's less honorable users months to build the site's large collection of pirated documents; I understand that it will likely take Scribd a while to tear it down. Scribd will have to be careful not to remove legal documents. If we've learned anything from this situation, it's that users generally believe it's better to tolerate some piracy in order to protect legal self-expression, and I really can't argue with that.