Scribd and piracy and subscription models

A few days ago, I read an article about how the subscription services will be the next big thing in publishing. Sort of like the old book of the month clubs, these services would offer readers the chance to download books for a set monthly fee. It was forecast that some of these services would unlimited downloads while others would have a multi-tiered system — the more you pay, the more you can download. The poster child for this sort of service was given as Scribd.

For those of you not familiar with Scribd, it has been around for awhile. Before it went to the subscription service, it was a place where you could upload your work or other documents for people to see. Now, that sounds all well and good except it soon became the place where you could also find your work pirated and available for download by anyone who wanted it. I’ve found works there by authors I know and others I don’t know but who I read. Yes, Scribd had the take-down notice available to use to notify them of the problem but how many of us actually take time on a regular basis to search out the internet for sites that are pirating our work?

I do it maybe once a month and, I’ll admit, I don’t always send the take-down notice. Part of the reason is because I see the piracy as free advertising. Part of it is also because I still feel that people are basically honest. If they pirate a book and like it, many will either go ahead and buy the book or, better yet, they will buy other books by that author AND they will tell their friends about the author. That said, one site that showed more than 700 downloads of one of my books did get an immediate take-down notice.

But now Scribd has gone to the subscription model. For $8.99/mo, you get “unlimited downloads”. That sounds pretty darned good. At least on the surface. But call me cynical. I want to know more. So I clicked on their publishers link to see what information they have for publishers wanting to list their books on Scribd. Guess what? There is nothing more than a form for the publisher to fill in so Scribd can get back to you.

Hmm….So far, I’m not impressed. I want to know how much money per download my publisher would be getting and then how much per download I would get as the author.

So next I go to the FAQs. Maybe there is something there.

Nothing under the Publishers Tools section of the FAQ. All that talks about is the upload process. Moving on to the Publishing Content section. Again, I struck out. Nothing there either about payment amounts or schedule.

So, as an author and editor, I’m not impressed. There is information I want before I make contact that isn’t there — or at least isn’t easily found.

Last week, Writer Beware published a post on this issue. According to Writer Beware, Scribd is “now partnering with HarperCollinsand various other publishers, such as SmashwordsE-Reads, and Rosetta Books, with the promise of more to come. They cover a lot of ground; not only do they sell ebooks and subscriptions, they offer what look like unauthorized “previews” of many other books, with links to authorized retailers.”

So, as an indie published author or small press published author working through Smashwords, my work may show up on Scribd. I’d have to tell Smashwords to put it there. I’m okay with that. That gives me some control. But the issue is I still don’t know how often or when Scribd would report/pay Smashwords, so I don’t know how long the delay in receiving royalties would be. Realistically, that means it could be six months or more before I see anything from a Scribd sale. That is something I do not like.

Also from Writer Beware: But finally, beneath all the new things, the old Scribd–offering not-necessarily-legal user uploads of copyrighted works–is still there. Only now Scribd has monetized them, since you can only see a “preview” of the material for free, and must be a paid subscriber to access the whole unauthorized upload.

Now, Scribd hasn’t let that statement go without response. Andrew Weinstein, vice-president of content acquisition for Scribd, acknowledged that piracy is an on-going problem for the site. Good for him. So what is Scribd doing to fight a known problem?  According to Weinstein, Scribd has a four-point plan in place to deal with the problem.

1. “Posting of clear legal terms of use banning the process.” Oh wow, they are just now doing this? And where is this posted? I’m going to assume it is in the publisher’s side of the site, the side that probably also lists payment details — at least I hope it does. But, iirc, this sort of posting was already in place before Scribd went to the subscription model and it had little effect in preventing piracy.

2. A “document fingerprint system in which they create a database of content (requiring an unencrypted copy of content from publishers) which allows Scribd software to reject unauthorized uploads that match.” So, there will be a delay in publishing work on Scribd as it is run against the database of other work already in the system. Or does this check happen later, after the title is already published on the site? And what about titles that are illegally uploaded but that don’t have legal uploads already on the site? So many questions and so few answers.

3. A “robust process of reaction, offering a copyright link with instructions and guidelines for reporting bad content to Scribd.” By this, Weinstein means they act within a day of the receipt of the take-down notice. Of course, this once more puts the burden on the copyright holder to monitor what is on Scribd and take action. It is also something they already had in place and is nothing new.

4. “Scribd works with content management services like Attributor, the online content monitoring vendor. ‘We help these companies do bulk DMCS take-down notices and constantly look for ways to help them find infringing content,’ ” Weinstein said. So, a site that is known for pirated works being on it is working to make sure other sites don’t have any. Yes, I am rolling my eyes.

What concerns me is I’m not seeing anything about how they will make payment to the copyright holder for any downloads made under their subscription service — or sales of the book through a link back to Amazon, et al — once that copyright holder proves the book was illegally uploaded to Scribd. I see nothing about how they will ban anyone who illegally publishes a book to Scribd. And, since we don’t know how they approve a publisher — or aggregator like Smashwords — for inclusion in the program, I simply have too many questions to feel comfortable with the site right now.

So, my recommendation? If you are a reader and want to join, that’s your choice. But as an author and editor, I will now be checking at least once a month for any of my work or the work of my friends to be sure none of our titles have been added to the catalog. In the meantime, I will be watching with a great deal of interest to see how things shake out there.



  1. I did a trial run of Scribd and found that there were very few titles I wanted to read. Certainly not enough to warrant paying monthly for titles I wouldn’t own. I’d rather do webscriptions on a month there is a couple of titles I want, and Amazon Prime does allow me to borrow, but you know how many times in a year I’ve remembered that when it was a book that allowed lending? Yeah… none.

    1. Cedar, that’s pretty much the way I feel. Maybe if they work out their site some more where it is easier to find stuff AND they figure out how to let authors and publishers know up front about the process, then I will try again. But, for now, Amazon and Baen supply my ebook needs very nicely.

  2. The “simple” answer is to have a lawyer (ack ptui) draft a Cease and Desist letter. If that doesn’t work, have the same lawyer (or any IP lawyer) file a copyright violation lawsuit against poster *and* Scribd. IANAL, but my understanding is that the notice means Scribd becomes liable if they don’t remove it. The law allows for $100K (*per occurrence,* as in download), plus loss of income damages.

    1. Walter, that’s the obvious answer but there are problems with it. An IP attorney is not cheap and even for sending the C&D letter, I’d want an attorney well-versed in intellectual property law. Even if your attorney is willing to take the case — should you need to file suit — on “spec”, you will still have to pay expenses and that can be more than most of us can afford. It’s one of the reasons why publishers haven’t been hit with audit demands by writers. We’d have to pay for the forensic audits and those are damned expensive. Plus, if it gets to the law suit aspect, you would need to know who put the book up there and what your purported damages might be. Now, you and I might be willing to put the money out to do it but there are a lot of writers who simply can’t or won’t. So there has to be another avenue — one that works better than the four steps Scribd has in place now.

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