Scribd, SFWA, and Whose Rights are Whose

posted by Doranna Durgin

These days, writers have different ideas about what they want done with their work. Those of us who write for a living tend to want control over how the work is displayed--and so do our publishers. Others of us sometimes want their work freely available, as widely as possible. The nice thing is, we can each make that choice for our own work, and proceed accordingly.

The not-so-nice thing is when others try to make that choice for you. A site called scribd did just this, pirating thousands of works and creating an intractable opt-out system, complete with an onerous process requiring documented proof of our right to even make such a request (which even then might not get the job done). Convenient for them--in their opt-out world, it was significantly easier for them to steal our work than it was for us to request that they cease stealing it.

As a result, SFWA stepped in on behalf of its writers. After a lot of wasted time and a certain amount of neener-neener from scribd (uncooperative responses, a series of "jump through this hoop first!" exchanges), SFWA served scribd with a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice, which basically says, "Take it down or the Federal government is going to be knocking at your door."

So scribd did. Though it's a shame that they played their neener games until it went that far, and that in the confusion they'd created by usurping thousands of works--and the rush to comply once things got serious (surprise, we meant it!), the several works that were there by design got caught up in the mess and were also removed. Fortunately, once that error was realized, it was rectified both by SFWA and by scribd within a matter of days--a situation corrected a whole lot faster, with a whole lot more grace from SFWA, than ever did scribd display along the way. And since then, SFWA has decided to re-evaluate its procedures, so it can move ahead with fighting such thefts with less chance of inconveniencing others along the way.

But what's really a shame is the hullabaloo that's followed. In weighing weeks-to-months of stolen property against a few days of inconvenience, one faction thinks that the inconvenience is the greater crime. In weighing theft of property over transitory error, the error is more heinous. In the grand scheme of things, somehow it's better for scribd to steal thousands of properties than it is for SFWA to protect those thousands, even if it takes a few days for things to shake out properly.

Yes indeed, SFWA is the Great Evil.

Me, I don't see why this has to be either/or--why we all can't simply agree that we each have the right to do with our works as we choose, and that no one else has the right to make those decisions for us--but some people are determined to make it that way. Those who steal it in the first place; those who can't seem to acknowledge that the stealing is wrong. Those who would gladly support organizations who steal, and those who would excoriate the people who try to stand up for their rights.

In the meantime, scribd seems to have suddenly become much more responsive to individual requests for removal of work, which was the whole point. Had they been this responsive in the first place, none of this would ever have happened.
*imagine Calvin face here*

It might be time to mention that I'm on staff at Helix, an online quarterly posted in the storyteller bowl model--that is, we post it, it's free for the reading, and if you like it we ask that you contribute toward paying the authors.

So I'm not against exploring new business models--as long as the authors are in on the decision to do so. I'm not against progress, change, or recognizing that the world is really round after all. But I'm for protecting my rights. And I'm standing up in support of one of the organizations currently helping me to do that.

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