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The Scribd Case

Page history last edited by Nikos Galanis 13 years, 3 months ago

What is Scribd

Scribd is a platform that enables anyone to publish documents of any kind (e-books, presentations, essays etc.) or browse through the available ones uploaded by others. It is the “youtube for documents”, helping a lot in education since it works like an online library, but on a much wider scale since the contents are uploaded from people all around the world.

 

Scribd is a powerful tool for education, since books are an essential part of it. Thought it can’t be a substitute of “real” books since reading through it is not as “comfortable”, it can be an excellent addition to the basic bibliography when the students need something more to expand their knowledge on a subject.

 

Also it can be pretty useful in everyday life since people who like reading books can definitely find something that will suit their needs when they’re “on the go” and don’t have an actual book available.

 

Copyright Filter

According to the Scribd terms of service, as anyone would expect, upload of copyrighted material from someone who does not own the rights is not allowed. If someone does so, then he’ll get noticed by the site managers and the document will be removed. In case of doing so repeatedly, the user is banned from the Scribd site.[1] [2]

 

But all the above are only theory. According to co-founder of Scribd Trip Adler, they can’t control everything users upload. So they have to be notified by the copyright owner to act, or the copyrighted material stays on Scribd. A known case is the one of a 17-year-old uploading a copy of “The Da Vinci Code”, which is obviously under copyright.[3]

 

In order to prevent such incidents, Scribd has introduced the “Text Matching System” (TMS), a technology that automatically finds and deletes copyrighted material. When people upload something on Scribd, they make a legally binding oath that they hold copyright to that work. Thus, the TMS compares it to all the rest of documents already uploaded or future uploads, and if a matching file is found that file gets deleted.

 

Copyright Infringement on Scribd

As mentioned above, many users arbitrarily upload copyrighted content for which they are not the owners. So this content should be actually removed. Though, the DMCA (see Copyright) gets abused all the time to take down content that shouldn’t be actually taken down. This happens sometimes because organizations are way too aggressive trying to protect copyright.

 

Recently, a director of SFWA (Science and Fiction Writers of America) searched for the names of two specific writers, Asimov and Silverberg, in order to take down any uploaded content from either of those. So he did a list of all the results and sent a DMCA notice requiring for this content to be removed.[4]

 

There were two problems regarding this action though:

 

First, the DMCA notices are supposed to be sent by either the copyright owner himself, or an agent of his. In this example neither is the case, since SFWA is just an anti-piracy organization representing writers, but not their agent in any case.

 

Second, the search did not only return work of those two writers, but other documents containing their names as well (like for instance reading lists). These documents were required to be taken down too, which should obviously not happen.[5]

 

The Copyleft Library

As mentioned above, Scribd is considered to be an “online library”. And like any library, it should have a wide variety of resources available. Since it is based on user contributions though, this variety is relatively narrow. While many people are using it, only a small percentage of them are contributing, just like open source software. There are the “contributors” and the “stalkers”, only waiting to use the knowledge without giving away any of theirs.

 

The “copyright police” makes this even harder, ready to take down even the slightest case of copyright infringement, like in the SFWA case above. This wouldn’t happen in a normal library though, where thousands of copyrighted books are kept free for use by anyone. So, there should be collaboration between Scribd and copyright authorities to allow use of copyrighted content under certain terms. Anyone would admit that it is much easier for someone who needs a quick reference to browse through Scribd from the comfort of his own home than going to the local library!

 

Keeping Knowledge Free

All this fuss about copyright makes sure knowledge contained in certain documents is kept to their owners and possible authorized users of them. And here is where the “fair use” doctrine is useful. According to it, copyrighted material can be used without copyright owner authorization for certain purposes, like criticism, commentary, parody, news reporting, research and teaching.[6]

 

Based on that, Scribd owners created  the Sribd Qualified Education Program [7]. Each university gets a secure area on the Scribd website where teachers can upload their material and allows students to search through the available documents in that space like they would in a library. Though the TMS filter still applies, there can be exceptions to it since “fair use” applies here as well. Thus, knowledge remains free for everyone.

 

Conclusion

Scribd turns up to be a pretty useful tool for anyone. But should copyright be applied or not? That yet remains unknown and the answers are different according to every person’s point of view. There are facts though regarding both sides. Regarding copyright:

  • Copyright infringement, which is usually very damaging for the copyright owner’s financial gains, is a pretty common phenomenon in Scribd. Anyone can upload documents, even if they’re not the copyright owners, and they won’t hesitate to do so. 
  • The Copyright Filter has been applied in an attempt to minimize the infringement cases but can easily be “tricked” if no one reports a document as copyrighted and infringing documents get pretty much “lost” among the huge amounts of documents uploaded.

As for copyleft:

  • Documents released under copyleft can be uploaded without any violation, thus helping widen the variety of knowledge in Scribd. Since a very low percentage of the users are contributors, they can also upload documents from other people who are not actually using Scribd this way.
  •  The “fair use” doctrine can be used to “bypass” copyright as long as the document is intended to be used for educational or other similar purposes as mentioned above.

 

So, it seems that someone does not have to use the one or the other because it’s “better”. It’s completely up to the writer himself to choose the one that fits best to his work; it has to be done carefully though since each one has its own freedoms and limitations. 

 

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