The Scribd / Doctorow Affair
The Scribd / Doctorow Affair
There have been a lot of questions and misperceptions about this, so
here's a description of what took place, and answers to some FAQs.
- The SFWA Electronic Piracy Committee was authorized to act to
remove copyright infringing ("pirate") materials on behalf
of over a hundred authors, including Robert Silverberg and the estates
of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Frank Herbert.
- The web site scribd.com was identified as having thousands of pirated
files by these authors. (It still has a lot as of the date I'm writing this.)
- As chair of the committee and VP of SFWA, I entered into discussions
with the owners of the site. The goals of the discussions were (a) to
minimize piracy in the future, as their business model and business practices
lend themselves to piracy and they had
made no effective efforts to deter uploaders from uploading unauthorized
(b) to see if they could provide tools to make it easier to identify
infringing material in order to get it removed, since they had so much
and it was laborious to identify it all by hand;
and (c) to remove the existing unauthorized material. We proposed
ideas to help in this regard that would not impact their site or users.
- Scribd personnel were resistant to taking action on these items.
- As part of the discussion, to illustrate the scope of the
problem, I identified many authors with pirated files on their site and
urged them to search on those keywords to see both the problem of how
many there were, and how hard they were to identify by hand.
- Scribd continued to resist taking action. They would not search
on the keywords themselves and requested a list.
- I presented them with a list of several hundred works infringing
on the copyrights of Asimov and Silverberg.
I had requested assistance from some SFWA volunteers to
compile this long list of items that did not belong, but received no help
as no one else had time.
In that scribd had no tools to make compiling such a list easy, I
wrote a quick[*] program to extract the keyword search results. ([*] "Quick"
because I'm a volunteer doing this job, I do have other work to do,
and at this point they were only asking for the list by way of example.)
- I ran the program to extract the matching keywords. It produced a
text file of raw HTML from their site which I then tried to wade through
-- but it was a very ugly mess, if you've ever looked at raw HTML code.
I next made a manual pass through it deleting many obvious items, though
being as hard to read as it was, and lacking time to make it pretty, I
unfortunately didn't do a foolproof job. I specifically deleted items
where the author names were ones I knew generally approved of copying
their works, specifically Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Charlie Stross.
In fact, I searched for their names specifically and deleted them.
(You can verify on the assorted sites that have since posted those lists
that their names are not present.) I removed other many other items I saw
that didn't belong. Checking each item is very time consuming using their
site, and I made my best efforts considering there were hundreds to do,
time constraints, no assistance, and at that time I was not contemplating
that it was an official takedown list -- it was at that time a list of
many infringing works for Scribd to see how bad the problem was.
- Scribd continued to resist taking action. They retrenched to a
very conservative position, saying they would only respond to "DMCA
notices" and only if worded in a very specific (and I was told, overly
demanding) manner. (DMCA = Digital Millennium Copyright Act; i.e.,
US copyright law.) Most web sites respond more helpfully and are typically
glad to remove pirated files. The ones that resist are often those who
are what you'd call "pirate sites", i.e. that exist for no other real
purpose than piracy. Scribd appeared, at that time, to all sensory
input to be a pirate site, not a legitimate site.
- In this view (that scribd was a pirate haven) I was
universally supported within the SFWA forums.
I can't recall any posts in their defense, urging they be left alone as
good folk. Authors were, in fact, loudly demanding Scribd's head on a pike.
- Since Scribd's owners were being even less helpful than before -- no longer
even giving lip service to wanting to help -- I told them that their
request for their specific DMCA wording was improper, and what I had
so far presented them was (as I had been told previously by lawyers)
sufficient notice for them. Frustrated at their lack of assistance, I
told them to consider my prior emails to them as sufficient notice.
I was hoping to bring them around to a more helpful position regarding
points (a) and (b) above, and was not focusing on (c) -- there would be
new pirate files uploaded constantly, so until the underlying problems
of (a) and (b) were solved, (c) was almost an moot point, and endless
game of whack-a-mole. Indeed, I somewhat expected Scribd to refuse even
the DMCA request, proving themselves to be unabashed pirates (yes, that
happened with some regularity), meaning my next step would be to go to
their Internet service provider and request that their entire site be
- Scribd chose to remove the items from the list, though
afterward still insisting they were improperly formed notices.
- After removing the items from the list, scribd sent me "DMCA
counter notifications" from two people. These are the method provided in
copyright law to restore documents that have been accidentally removed.
I quickly told scribd to restore those and any other documents for which
they received a counter notice. (Apparently scribd was not instantaneous about
restoring them, but that's another matter.) I and others from SFWA apologized
for the error. I apologize here again.
- Although no counter-notice was sent about it, one of the wrongly
removed files was one labeled "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" that
had been uploaded by user "trustme3" from Seoul, Korea. I didn't see
it amid the mess of HTML code, and I confess I don't think I would have
have recognized it as the title of a Cory Doctorow novel even if I had.
- The file in question was released under a Creative Commons license
allowing others to post it, and this was how it arrived there (via the
guy in Korea). During the short time the file was unavailable on scribd,
the file was available for free at a large number of other locations
on the web, including Cory's own site, Project Gutenberg, Google Books,
and so on. Anyone looking for a copy of the book during that brief time would
have had little trouble finding it.
- Rather than contact me or anyone in SFWA (or at scribd) to ask if it
were a mistake and seek correction, some days later Cory Doctorow
instead published, before purportedly millions of readers, on his popular
boingboing blog -- shortly before midnight and going into the Labor Day
holiday weekend -- a message accusing SFWA of "abuses" of the law.
- "Abuse" implies intent -- there was no intent to use the DMCA
for any purpos other than to remove the works of those authors who
wanted them removed. The purpose was solely to use the DMCA as it
was written; and the small accident that occured was quicly rectified,
following the methods built into the law to correct mistakes. There was
no "abuse" despite Doctorow's headline of "Science Fiction Writers of
America abuses the DMCA".
- Cory Doctorow is a Canadian blogger at the popular boingboing.net
and vocal activist against US copyright law.
- Given when Doctorow posted, the one-sidedness of it, the nature of the
blogosphere to copy information without investigating the whole story,
readers erupted in the blogosphere to his spin on the situation long
before anyone in SFWA was even aware of it. (We only heard about it
via SFWA members who saw it on blogs.) I believe it was also fueled by
some tendencies among people to dislike authors trying to protect their
copyrights (which was the original problem),
- As soon as we were aware of it we requested the file be restored
and apologized for the error. (Of course, you can't put a genie like
that back in the bottle, and to this day incorrect facts about it are
still be presented.)
Some common issues I've noticed:
- There was no intent to act on behalf of Cory Doctorow or others,
as some bloggers have asserted. The inclusion of those files was purely
accidental. The lists supplied were specifically on behalf of Robert
Silverberg and the estate of Isaac Asimov, who had authorized SFWA to act
on their behalf. SFWA members had access to a private web-site form
where they could sign up for this service as a benefit of membership.
Over a hundred members had signed up (though knowledge of the
form probably faded from memory over time). There were many other
authors who had also authorized action against scribd, and a number of
them had actively and urgently requested SFWA act against scribd.
- Questions whether the SFWA Board of Directors authorized this action.
The Electronic Piracy Committee had long been authorized to act in this
manner. There are a large number of piracy cases so the Board does not
micromanage and generally does not oversee individual cases. I had
discussed scribd in particular with other Board members, including
the President, and there was enthusiasm for solving the problem.
- Comments that only properly formed DMCA notices can be used to
take down pirate works. No. Anyone can ask in any manner they like --
it's a free country, you can phrase questions, comments, or requests how
you like. (Imagine if you had to file a form in specific language in
triplicate to get someone to do something for you! Instead of, "Excuse me,
could you move your car off my lawn?") Some web sites refuse to act
against pirate material unless the request is phrased in some specific
legalistic manner. It's a legal question whether this makes them liable
or not if they fail to act, but I Am Not A Lawyer, and it's their neck
in such a situation anyway, not mine. At any rate, I've frequently used
informal requests to get infringing material removed. They usually work
better than formal ones; honey vs. vinegar, and all that. If a school
teacher posted an Asimov story on their public web site, I didn't send
them a nasty DMCA legalistic letter, I politely asked if they could
remove it. I had begun talking with scribd back in March and they
were not being helpful.
- I note that in the five-ish years since I was chair of the committee,
the takedown notices we sent out resulted in easily over 100,000 pirate
files being removed. Undoubtedly this included non-pirated files, as many
a pirate site also has, e.g., the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and other
public domain works, and a common result from an Internet service provider
upon being shown evidence of a ton of pirate files (that the owner has
refused to remove) -- is to remove the whole site. Possibly even including
works by Cory Doctorow. Until the "Labor Day 2007 Massacre" there had
been zero, zip, nada, no notices sent back about improperly removed files.
- This was, actually, one of the very few times where I supplied a list
to a site, and by far it was the longest list. In the past I've pointed
out something like "look at this page, it's got thousands of pirate files
on it", or "Search on Asimov", etc. and they go Yikes! and remove it all.
When I've used a list in the past it's been very short, usually when there
are only a few pirate files included among authorized files (maybe 10 or
20 items on a list, all of them really obvious). This was the first
time a site actually wanted a list of hundreds in order to believe they
had a lot of pirate files on their site.
- Isn't this from the same guy who invented Shades of Gray? Yes,
that's me. SoG is much misunderstood, but, alas, that happens. The idea
was to turn piracy into a form of marketing, by placing in pirate channels
(only in pirate channels) copies of works that differed in a
wide range of ways from the original, from obvious to subtle (along the
whole spectrum), and advertising the fact, so that pirate downloaders
would have doubts about how accurate a copy their received, causing a
"flight to quality", i.e., purchasing the real product from a reputable
source after having previewed a probably-incorrect promotional copy;
and cause pirates to have to employ DRM methods to "protect" the "real"
pirate material. (Which would be a losing proposition, since DRM is
easier to subvert than to make iron-clad, especially when pirates can't
firmly establish their real identities. These kinds of schemes are also
more work and thus reduce the actual amount of piracy. There's a certain
irony in having pirates be the ones who have to employ the DRM methods
they so dislike. :-) The intent was to make RIAA-like lawsuits against
infringers unnecessary (since all the copies of "shaded" works are now
legally legitimate), eliminate the need for new (and usually over-broad
and abused) anti-piracy federal laws, and eliminate the need for DRM and
user inconvenience it causes (at least that part is starting to happen).
Plus turn pirate channels into known marketing channels, making money
for authors. [Wasn't there some loan thing involved in this, you ask?
Yes, the SFWA Board, with full input from SFWA counsel on how to proceed,
loaned me funds from SFWA's Legal Fund for legal fees to file the patent
application on Shades of Gray. I signed a promissory note to repay
the funds and the funds were paid directly to the law firm. I repaid
the loan in July 2007.] I imagine SoG doesn't sound too attractive to
people who like being able to easily download illegal copies of files,
but that's more or less the idea... (I wholeheartedly agree that if
the real works are available easily and inexpensively there will be
no economic harm from piracy, although authors nonetheless may wish
to minimize piracy for non-economic reasons, as is their right.)
- Comments that SFWA should have a lawyer review every takedown
request. Well, there are just too many cases for that; it would cost
a fortune, take forever, and it isn't needed (given the low error rate,
the lawyer could make an infrequent error too). Considering that most
SFWA work is done by volunteers, the The idea that there should be some
super-formal bureaucratic process is impractical. Nor necessary.
- Where's it at now... The Board voted to suspend the e-piracy
committee until an exploratory committee headed by John Scalzi can get the
sense of SFWA members whether they wanted to continue this member benefit.
This exploratory committee has made some severe blunders, so I'm not sure
what use their results will be, but ultimately it will be the Board that
decides what to do next.
- Some other folks tried some ingenious ways to remove copyright infringing
files from scribd, tagging them and using scribd's other approved means,
until scribd forbade this. (Doesn't sound like the efforts of a site on
the up and up...)
- Update 11/07: The exploratory committee found that SFWA members
overwhelmingly (80% or more) want SFWA to offer direct assistance in
helping members whose works have been infringed. The Board is now
discussing how to restore this service.
- And in a situation that seems ironically relevant to this,
see this link.
In a nutshell:
Ursula K. Le Guin contacted me about Cory Doctorow, who infringed her
copyright by reprinting the entirety of one of her short stories onto
boingboing without permission, misrepresented her intent, omitted her
copyright notice, and placed a Creative Commons license on her story
allowing not reprinting (not to mention creating derivative works),
which caused many further unauthorized reprints. Details are at the
link above. Doctorow has so far responded with a snub, ignoring Ms. Le
Ms. Le Guin has posted an open letter at
After SFWA President Michael Capobianco interceded, Doctorow has deleted
the page. As yet Doctorow has not yet honored Ms. Le Guin's other requests.
Many people discussing Doctorow's actions at
This incident has also turned up that Johne Cook, another of the scribd
users who had work accidentally briefly blocked and got all upset about
it (but didn't contact me or SFWA even though he was a member of my
Critters Writers Workshop
at the time, so he knew full well how to contact me), apparently doesn't
himself feel bound by copyright law -- Doctorow outted Cook for forwarding
my private email without permission.
Doctorow has apologized, at
His apology is ok, though he admits no fault in copying the entirety of
her work, goes overboard saying he's removed every mention of Ursula Le Guin
from his archive, and takes a poke at me for good measure.
I think quoting an entire 600 word story isn't likely to pass muster as
fair use, as he claims, and I think it's incorrect to call my accidental
removal of his file on scribd "fraudulent" (I had no intent to deceive).
Comments aren't permitted there, but many have commented instead at
Update #2 10/15/07:
I posted the following question on
a boingboing thread
where many people were discussing Cory's actions (again, many in an
unflattering light). I posted this about 9AM Mountain this morning:
A question for The Management, actually (sorry, if there's a better way to ask I didn't see it, and Cory's killfiled me, so...): Are user comments on boingboing covered by the CC license referred to at the bottom of the page? The box I'm using here to post this doesn't say anything like, "by posting a comment you agree that your comment will be covered by the Creative Commons license we use on the site" so I have a feeling the user may retain the rights, and permission would be needed to republish someone's entire comment elsewhere. Yet the footer implies everything on the site is CC-usable. I'm unclear if I'm allowed to quote user comments, in full, without seeking permission of the user who posted them -- which would be difficult, since there's no contact information for each poster.
Could you clarify? (Reason I'm asking is, well, I'd like to repost some of the user comments! But I don't want to step on toes by doing so.)
And could I suggest, for clarity's sake, that you might include a little permission-granting sentence like the above near the comments box? (I'd also suggest the link in the footer might be revised to say something like, "as much of the work on this site as possible is covered with a CC license, click here for information on what is and isn't covered", linking to a page that explains CC licenses and what is/isn't covered, etc. (I know it ought to be "everything" in an ideal world, but copyrighted photos or other images wouldn't be, so it isn't cut and dried.)
I think CC licenses are terrific, and applaud their use in general; but sometimes the devil is in the details, so I wanted to ask rather than assume.
I also emailed a copy to Teresa Neilsen Hayden (an admin for boingboing who
someone emailed me about, suggesting I contact with that question).
I was gone to a meeting, had no email from her, so I reloaded that page
about 4:30 PM looking for a posted reply -- and not only had my comment
been deleted (but not others talking about the situation, including, I now
see, a copy of Ursula's story) -- but my comment was replaced with a nasty
attack on me and Ursula Le Guin by Teresa, full of vitriol and false
I attempted to post a comment noting this to boingboing, but my login was
removed. (I attempt to log in, with login/password field pre-filled,
which worked this morning, and it now says "Invalid login.")
So, people aren't allowed to criticize boingboing, and the admins censor
and attack those who do.
So much for them fighting for free speech. I'll note that when I
ran Nyx (world's first free ISP that
I founded, dedicated to free speech; still there, still dedicated to
free speech, though I spun it off as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 1997 and
no longer am active there), I never deleted anyone's critical
posts of me. If memory serves, in the 10 years I ran it I only ever
booted a couple people who violated Nyx's generous terms of service
(and theirs was an amazingly egregious case for the time). I may not
have agreed with people, but I never censored anyone's opinions.
It's their site, to do with as they please, of course, but that's
pretty sad behavior.
Update #2 10/15/07: Readers alerted me that there is another
copy of Ursula's story posted in that same thread above, comment #13.
The message was posted anonymously, and boingboing says they manually
approve all anonymous postings after reviewing them. Bit of a nose tweak, that.
Both the extra, moderator-approved copy of Ursula's story, and the
moderator's attack on Ursula and me, have thankfully been removed.
Ebook (un)availability, a case study