Silly Copyright Lawsuits

So Elaine Scott, author of Stocks and Bonds, Profits and Losses, has sued online publishing site Scribd. And it’s really, really silly.

What’s Scribd? I think of it as a simple, browser-based pdf of sorts. People use it to share books or documents in a simple format that’s easy to read on-screen or to print off. E.g., Cheryl Ball uses it for her CV, which is what inspired me to use it for our new-teacher orientation page this year.

Apparently, someone uploaded Scott’s entire book to Scribd without asking. She found it and got mad, and Scribd took it down, just like they always do when a copyright owner complains. But Scott maintains that “Scribd didn’t do enough to protect her copyright in the first place” (via WSJ blog). Scribd probably doesn’t have much to worry about here; other cases have shown that service providers aren’t responsible for the copyright violations of their users. (If I remember right, the Grokster case was an exception–Grokster lost because it was shown that their marketing had specifically encouraged people to use the site in illegal ways, and their internal documents showed that they wanted/expected people to trade protected mp3s.)

In fact, Scribd has an ever-growing technological filter in place to keep these kinds of things happening more than once. It’s like if Paramount sent YouTube a notice saying, “Some jerk is showing complete episodes of Star Trek: Voyager on your servers. Take them the heck down,” and YouTube responded by taking them down and by having technology that screens future uploads that also show more Voyager than they’re supposed to. (I suppose you could have a computer do a voice-to-text recognition thing that searches for Harry Kim whining about the structural integrity of the ship or for Seven-of-Nine whining about not feeling human enough.)

But–and this is where things get silly–Scott doesn’t want Scribd to use this filter, because they have to store certain aspects of her book on their server, which she sees as violating copyright. In other words, “Scott claimed that Scribd ‘shamelessly profits’ from stolen works and ‘built a technology that’s broken barriers to copyright infringement on a global scale'” (via CNET news).

Folks like Cory Doctorow and Tarleton Gillespie have pointed out the obvious problem when people get all huffy about every single copy in digital spaces: computers are designed to copy information. It’s what they do. And that’s how the web functions, too: information stored on a server is accessed (read: copied to your computer) and turned into a visual form by your browser. Everything you read online is being copied. It’s completely illogical to start claiming that every act of access and archiving is a breach of copyright; following that “logic,” we’d end up unable to access information at all.

One caveat: this does bear similarities (as this morning’s WSJ article pointed out) to the case of high school students in Northern Virginia who sued for storing their intellectual property (their essays written for class) on the turnitin servers. I think those students were right to protest that, but I see it as different than this Scribd case. The high school students’ work was being completely stored on the company servers, against their will, for the purpose of bettering turnitin’s database and thus increasing the company’s profit. Scribd’s server doesn’t keep an entire copy of Scott’s book–only some sort of digital fingerprint–and it’s there to protect Scott’s work, not to use it to build a master database of plagiarism detection.


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