This is a quick essay and I’ll need to flesh it out and links but here is my take on the mess.
I’d never heard of Scribd until I heard about the big stink caused by some DCMA takedown notices issued by the SFWA VP Andrew Burt. Cory Doctorow and Jerry Pournelle have already weighed in on this. After looking at Scribd and doing a quick search I did find several copyright violations. So what happened? SFWA screwed up. Scribd screwed up. And neither side of the argument is completely right. Scribd’s Terms of service do say the right thing about protecting copyrighted work and the DCMA. DCMA is a flawed law but does have some useful provisions.
One side, Doctorow is saying Andrew Burt issued fraudulent takedown notices. Scribd’s lawyer who works for the EFF says that SFWA issued improper notices and that they need to be in a certain format for them to take action. Scribd did take down a lot of stuff that was not infringing. It is my understanding that SFWA is supposed to be acting on behalf of authors to protect their works. So I think Mr. Burt was trying to do the right thing but he screwed up. Big time. Did Mr. Burt consult SFWA’s lawyer before issuing the notices or have the lawyer issue them? I get the impression he did not. Where is SFWA’s lawyer in all of this and what does he or she have to say? Pournelle seems to think that SFWA has blinked and can no longer be trusted. As for suggestions that Doctorow sue SFWA is a very bad idea. SFWA does far more good than harm.
It is interesting to note that you can upload stuff anonymously to Scribd. This certainly defeats the spirit of of their TOS if not in practice. They should make uploaders affirm that to the best of their knowledge they are not infringing on copyrighted material. There should be some burden on the uploaders.
Technology makes it very easy to abuse and infringe copyright. I’m no fan of DRM (digital rights management) but there needs to be a way to track the source of infringement. Digital signatures perhaps? It’s going to take time to sort this out. Society and laws are playing catchup to the technology. At this point SFWA needs good legal counsel to get themselves on the right track.
Update (9/17/07) — The best discusion about this can be found at Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light blog: SFWA: DCMA abusers.
Update (1/11/08) — A lot has happened in the last few months. SFWA had an exploratory committee on how best to protect copyright. Jerry Pournelle seems more reasonable in his update and Scribd seems to have implemented real protections. A lot of the stuff I could find before are no longer there. So all in all things seem to be moving in the right direction. I’ve found a few more things about the situation and I may link those later.