Over the Labor Day weekend there blew up a weird story that involved the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) and the website scribd.com. For those not in the know (like me), scribd.com allows users to upload text files and share them with users in a collaborative format (not unlike Flikr). Now the problem arose when a number of users on the scribd.com site started posting copyrited materials. These included the texts to a number of novels by writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg and others. To sum up the fracas, SFWA acts as an advocate for authors that do not have the means to protect their own copyrights, and also specifically for the estates of some authors (Silveberg to be one). So, the SFWA tried to contact scribd.com to get them to stop the posting of the files. It appears that scribd.com was not exactly cooperative with SFWA and so the SFWA sent them an e-mail that claimed to be a DMCA notice. The DMCA is very explicit on how such takedown notices must be formatted and the SFWA did not meet those guidelines. Additionally the SFWA did not vet their list properly and included works that were in the public domain or used a Creative Commons license for free distribution.
Now the fun really began.
Scribd.com did start to take down some of the copyrited works, but two other things happened. One was that a novel by Cory Doctorow entitled Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. To be fair, SFWA did mess up. Their takedown notice was not in the correct format, and also included works that they did not have the authority to request a takedown for. This was a mistake. The President of the SFWA apologized for the mistake and the organization disbanded its ePiracy group. Scribd.com did being to make efforts to remove much of the copyrited material, but evidently not all. They also contacted the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) to begin litigation against SFWA (or at least threatened to do so). This was likely the major reason for the disbanding of the ePiracy group in SFWA.
But this brings up some very interesting points. There has been a lot of discussion on this topic (and I liked to a large number of articles about it below), but the theme tends to run along a couple of salient points.
First…who should protect the IP of a writer?
Second…Should the SFWA act on behalf of its members to protect their IP?
Third…just how bad/stupid is the DMCA and should it be repealed/modified?
Fourth…just who is the victim in this affair, scribd,com, SFWA, the authors, Cory Doctorow, anyone?
Fifth…is IP really something that can/should be protected?
Ideally, when an person creates something, a book, a painting, a photograph, software, music, etc., they should be able to decide how it is distributed. For example, professionally I create software systems for the use of companies. Part of my employment agreement is that my employer owns the rights to anything that I create. This is OK with me as I don’t really want to own it (and assume the liability). In compensation I get paid well for my IP. I also like to take photos with my digital camera, and I like to write blog entries (like this one). In those cases, I do not attempt to make money off of them (and honestly would just be thrilled to be recognized as taking a cool photo, or writing an insightful blog entry). So, for the most part, I freely distribute them in the hopes of my Instalanche ™ or similar 15 minutes of fame.
But what, if I made my living from selling photos that I took? What if my written word was my livelihood? I doubt that I would be all that happy to see it distributed without my being paid for it. It would be no different from my work at a company being given to another company without my employer being paid for it. This is, in essence, the fight over Intellectual Property.
So, who should protect a creator or IP from someone using or distributing their work (without their permission) and not paying for it? Well, the US government has laws (specifically the DMCA and the Copyright act of 1975) that protect the rights of creators. They aren’t the best laws, and they have a lot of problems with them, but they do allow for creators to stop people from, in effect, stealing from them.
John Ringo, one of my favorite authors currently, says that this is the job of the publisher. In his words
Jerry says that ‘absent SFWA’ no one will protect the rights of the authors. In a way, he’s correct. But authors shouldn’t have to defend their rights.
That is what publishers are for.
If the work is currently in circulation and the publisher does not support ‘free range’ ebooks, let the publisher’s legal department handle it. They have lawyers and paralegals and all the rest. They may even have database people who can create a simple query. ‘If: book = free-range Then: Don’t Sue’
He has a point, but I would point out that not every publisher has the deep pockets that allow them to pursue such legal adventures. Not only that, but for many authors their works are not mainline books that publish tens of thousands of copies and make the author millions of dollars. And what if they aren’t books, but magazine articles, photographs, or essays? In Mr. Ringo’s case, his publisher makes hundreds of books freely available on their website. They also have a policy that if you purchase an eBook from their site that you CAN distribute it. Its a great marketing policy and got me interested in the Belesarius and Lt Leary series by David Drake. It also got me to read Mr. Ringo’s series with David Weber (The Prince Roger Series). I don’t dispute that eBooks are a great way to market. I DO dispute that every author must feel that way…or more importantly every creator. What does a creator do, when their distributor (publisher) does not bother to enforce their copyrights? After all, its the author that is loosing the money. The distributor is loosing only potential revenue, and they might not care. Jerry Pournelle brings up a very good point that some of his books have exclusive electronic distribution channels and thus he is not even allowed to publish them himself on his website. Why should scribd.com be allowed to make money on his works in a way that he is not?
As of now, the SFWA is out of the ePiracy business. To some this is a good thing, to others, it isn’t. How this all turns out remains to be seen. For the 800lb gorillas in the marketplace (the Ringos, the Webers, etc.) they will likely continue to have the financial wherewithal to stop people from stealing their IP. As I wonder what will happen when my wife publishes her books…will she be able to stop someone from stealing her IP and making money off of it? I hope so. But, since we won’t likely have the money to prosecute…I hope that some group (SFWA, her publisher, or some other group) will be able to help us out if such a thing happens. Of course…what I really am hoping for is that her works are so amazingly popular that this will be a real issue for us (cause that will mean that we are going to be crazy rich!!!).
I recommend reading first the essay by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing. Then the article on Ars Technica. They are the most critical of the entire affair casting the SFWA in the mold of RIAA or the MPAA as a corporate entity that is trying to squash scribd.com.
Then I would recommend reading Jerry Pournelle’s discussion on his website Chaos Manner Reviews.
Dr. Pournelle pointed me to some essays by Peter N. Glaskowsky here, here and here. He delves into some of the more amazing levels of scribd.com abuses by its members.
You can also read the scribd.com office response on their blog.
John Scalzi (an author that I like even if I think he is a political dolt) ran for president of SFWA and lost. He was asked by his readers to talk about it and I think he pens and excellent, well written, and very balanced article that points out the mud on both parties faces. He did used to be a reporter and it shows in his writing here.
Lastly, I learned of this brou-ha-ha by reading John Ringo’s website (I had just finished reading Vorpal Blade, very good BTW), and was looking at his upcoming releases when I saw a post about “That SRIBD thing”. I didn’t know what it was so I opened it and then read Pournelle’s piece.
All in all it was worth spending my lunch reading about all of this. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings on the issue due to my work being a creator (over which I don’t technically hold any rights) and being married to a creator (whom I hope to one day have to honestly worry about having her stuff stolen because it is so popular).