L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

07 September 2007 Blog Home : September 2007 : Permalink

The Latest on Scribd

I got an email from the folks at scribd because they seem to have decided to object to the idea that users should be able to publicly categorize some works as copyright violations by creating a group of that name. I'm going to quote and fisk (sorry Jared) the email because I think it is still being economical with the actualité and because I have some concrete alternative proposals and suggestions. Here goes:
   I am writing to explain our response to the group which you joined
on Scribd to highlight potential copyright violations.  First, I would
like to applaud your concern for copyright holders.  Contrary to what
you may believe, all of us at Scribd are strong supporters of
copyright and do not wish to see infringing material on Scribd.
First it is nice to have a response and I do sincerely mean that even though I suspect someone passed the email through a lawyer before it went out. Secondly I'm glad you say you support copyright. I just wonder why it took such an almighty explosion of interest to get you to remove some of the more egregious infringements.
  I thought that your group was a very clever way of reporting
documents as potential violations. We never expected our groups
feature to be used in that way! After some internal discussion,
however, we've come to the conclusion that while reporting infringing
material through groups is clever, it is not the best way to do this
OK. I should note the group wasn't my idea initially. But I thought it was a very good one too. One reason being that it made it publicly clear that a document appeared to be infringing. Given the feedback I got about documents that were incorrectly labeled as in violation I think the public view was good although I agree the groups concept as created by scribd is not ideal for this task.
 The problem with using groups to report copyright violations is that
it allows any user to remove a huge number of documents from Scribd
with only a few mouse clicks, for any reason. Scribd does not have
the time or ability to determine whether documents are infringing, so
if we used a copyright group to determine this, we would need to
simply remove every document added to the group. This gives users an
enormous amount of power. For example, it would not take long at all
for some joker to add every document on Scribd to the copyright
violation group. What would we do then?
Firstly the documents are NOT being removed. All that happens is that the viewers see that the document is a member of the group and they are gathered in one place to make it easy for scribd and/or the copyright owners to check whether the documents are in violation or not. There seems to be no reason, other than simple bloodymindedness or a desire to avoid bad publicity, why scribd should feel obliged to remove every document listed in a group called "copyright violation". The one thing that I do note is that it is in fact hard to remove a document from a group, the only person who can do it is the person who added the document to the group and there may be a problem if two or more people add the doc to the group.
 It is for this reason that Scribd has a user flagging system.  The
way the user flagging system works is simple. When a document has
been flagged as a violation 3 times, it is removed. The author is
contacted and asked to file a counter-notification if they do own the
rights to the document. I like to think that this system strikes the
right balance, by giving users the power to help us police the site
without allowing any one user to abuse our process.
Well I've tried it out. As of early today it was easy to find a selection of Asimov works on scribd which were almost certainly up in violation of copyright (see this image). The first thing to note is that the image shows that 'flag as inappropriate' is very small and grey and not immediately obvious. The second thing to note is there is no "This looks like a copyright infringement" option, merely "Other TOS Violation" which is less than obvious, especially given that there is a nice link saying that copyright owners should read the copyright FAQ (which is either new or much more visible than it used to be). [Problem three is that the scribd web2.0 stuff doesn't cope well with browsers less than 1024 pixels wide.]

I think the biggest problem here is that there is now no way to tell publicly whether a document has been flagged as a violator or not. My view is that the document should be visibly marked somehow but that the uploader should have a method of clearly (and publicly) asserting that the document is not in violation. In other words instead of some hidden system scribd should allow two clear flags on the left one a warning saying "Possible Copyright violator" and another saying "Uploader confirms no copyright violation". And those two flags should somehow be searchable. I personally would not mind if the "Possibly violator" flag had an identifier showing who claimed it was a violation and a way to go from there to a list of documents marked as violations by the user.
 As a gesture of goodwill, we have removed all the documents added to
the copyright violation group. I have since been contacted by users
who asserted that some of the documents which were in the group were
their intellectual property and were not infringing. In the future,
we will not be allowing groups whose sole purpose is to highlight
potential copyright violations on Scribd, as the potential for abuse
of such a system is simply too great.
Good will towards whom? Obviously not the estate of Dr Asimov since his books, which I'm pretty sure I added to the group, are still available on your site with no indication that the uploads almost certainly infringe his copyright.
  If in the future you would like to help remove potentially
infringing material from Scribd using our user-flagging system, such
assistance would be greatly appreciated. My thanks for your time and
interest in Scribd.
Have done some flagging. It will be interesting to see how many flagged documents remain available for how long. Currently a search on "Asimov" lists 91 documents, the first 7 of which are almost certainly in violation of copyright.
In related news, since Eric Flint has been quoted by various people in the whole scribd debate I'm going to excerpt part of what he wrote last weekend about Scribd:

I have for years, as everyone knows, strongly supported the principle that publishers and authors should not treat their customers as crooks.

The corollary, however, is also true. My customers have no right to treat me like one of their serfs or one of their sharecroppers. Lounging back on their virandas sipping mint juleps and telling me that maybe they'll get around to paying me my pittance if it's not too much bother for them. And if I'm not too uppity.

[...] As far as I'm concerned, SCRIBD is a sleazebag operation run by weasels and tapeworms. Period.

The proprietors of Scribd need to find a better way to police their site so that isn't such a blatant and obvious "rip-off-pository" and can become the "wripositiry" they claim they want it to be.