Suing Scribd is like suing a watchmaker to stop time

Scribd is having to deal with another irate copyright holder, who according to alleges that Scribd has “built a technology that’s broken barriers to copyright infringement on a global scale”. The complainant, Elaine Scott, is absolutely right in a way, because Scribd has built a technology that’s broken many barriers on a global scale. And many of those barriers, natural to an analog era (warehousing and shipping physical copies, geographic distance, slower communications), have been the rug beneath conventional notions of copyright law. That rug’s getting pulled, whether we like it or not.

Scribd has set high benchmarks: for payments to publishers, efficient take-downs, ease of use, real-time sales reporting, responsiveness, and more. But nothing they’ve done wasn’t coming anyway; they’ve just done it really well. Internet technology, of which Scribd is one application, changes the nature of publishing. This can never be emphasised enough. The Internet adds a dimension to publishing no less profound than adding a third dimension to a two-dimensional world. It cannot be stopped, and that’s scary if your business model has one less dimension than a rapidly extruding world. The best defense against seeing old business models destroyed overnight, rather than having them evolve gracefully, is to encourage companies like Scribd, because they’re using web technology in well-meaning, conscientious ways. Ways you could work with as you evolve.

Does this mean we have to make judgement calls about the intentions of these companies’ leaders? About whether they are well-meaning, conscientious people? Yes, I believe it does. (For example, I suspect The Pirate Bay’s owners were found guilty for their attitudes more than their technology, which is ordinary and ubiquitous.) We have to be very human in deciding who to back: trust good people, avoid unreliable people, talk directly, have empathy, expect individual excellence and perseverance, reward shows of good faith, share to encourage sharing. Luckily the Internet encourages human interaction, and brings personality to the fore. It is possible to bring a human dimension to business, where traditionally we’ve assumed that financial returns are all that matters.

We could do a lot, lot worse than Scribd and the people that run it. For sharing content and selling it, it’s hard to think of ways to do better. If you think Scribd’s existence has damaged your business model, be glad it’s Scribd that did it. Scribd is mere evidence of what the Web makes possible and probable. Work with them, and save your energy for a real problem.

Update: For more on the opposite view, see Martyn Daniels’ post, ‘Is Scribd Doing Enough?’ (22 Sep 2009)

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