Scribd's New Ebook Subscription Service: Partnering with Publishers, Profiting from Piracy

This post, by Michael Capobianco, originally appeared on Writer Beware on 1/9/14.

I was contemplating what to write for my first Writer Beware blog post, when a subject popped up out of the blue, packed with all kinds of fascinating questions.

Some of you may remember when SFWA tangled with the online “digital library” Scribd back in 2007. Scribd was loaded with unauthorized uploads of copyrighted material, but SFWA screwed up big time by sending a sort-of DMCA notice (it wasn’t really) to get works by many sf writers removed from the site. It was an embarrassment for SFWA, and over time made it less and less likely that the organization would do anything directly about illegal uploads, even though a plan had been developed to do so for members who had specifically authorized SFWA to act as their agent.

Since everything to do with online piracy left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth, I decided I would not go looking for illegally uploaded copies of my or other authors’ works, and I didn’t check to see if Scribd was following through on the promises it made at the time to provide real-time checking of works uploaded to the service.

Jump forward six years to now. The subject of Scribd came up on a SFWA forum as part of a controversy that I needn’t go into here, and I decided that it was finally time to check it out.

Six years has made a big difference. Scribd has set out to become a full-fledged bookstore to compete with Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and takes it one step farther with the addition of an all-you-can-eat subscription service that allows access to an unlimited number of ebooks for $8.99 a month. They are now partnering with HarperCollins and various other publishers, such as Smashwords, E-Reads, and Rosetta Books, with the promise of more to come. They cover a lot of ground; not only do they sell ebooks and subscriptions, they offer what look like unauthorized “previews” of many other books, with links to authorized retailers.

But finally, beneath all the new things, the old Scribd–offering not-necessarily-legal user uploads of copyrighted works–is still there. Only now Scribd has monetized them, since you can only see a “preview” of the material for free, and must be a paid subscriber to access the whole unauthorized upload.


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