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

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.

How did this happen without creating much of a ripple in the author community?

Well, first of all, it happened recently. The subscription service started on October 1. Details of what the deal looks like appeared for the first time in a Smashwords email and blog post just as I was writing this blog post.

A number of questions about such a service immediately spring to mind, and the Smashwords post answers some of them–assuming that the deal is consistent across the various publishers. When authors sign up for the deal directly, we can see how their royalties will be computed, but there’s another level of complexity when there’s a publisher acting as intermediary.

How much will HarperCollins authors see from the subscription program? HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray told Publisher’s Lunch, “We have negotiated very hard, to the point where if the whole business went this way, we and our authors would be very pleased …[this is] the exact opposite of the music industry’s subscriptions models. The revenues that go to our authors is up, somewhat significantly.” So can we assume authors will be getting 25% of the take, as they do from ebooks? Or slightly more? Will the payments be broken out on royalty statements so authors can see how much money they are making from Scribd subscriptions? Most importantly, do publishers have the contractual right to sell authors’ books this way at all?

Is there, indeed, even a difference, except that (counting the first 10% free preview) reading 30% of a book is considered a sale, reading 29% is considered 1/10 of a sale, and reading 15% is no sale? Extensive book previews have become the norm, and they’re apparently authorized by publishers based on vague wording in the authors’ contracts about promotional excerpts. But here we have 29% of the book
available for reading with no compensation due the author, unless there are nine more browsers who read enough of the book to count as a browse but not enough to count as a full sale.

Complicated enough for you? Let’s break it down a little further. Since it doesn’t matter if you read the first 10% or not, that isn’t even part of the equation. If I’m understanding the Smashwords/Scribd deal correctly, it specifies:

First 10% – Free. Doesn’t count toward total.
10% – 15% read – No payment.
15% – 30% read – Browse credit. 10 browses equals 1 sale.
30% – 100% read – Full sale.

While for novels, this may not seem onerous, for non-fiction and short fiction anthologies it can become easily become problematical.

Just for the moment, let’s assume it is an okay deal for many authors. It’s tremendously better than the deal offered to musicians by music subscription services like Pandora and Spotify. Even so, this paradigm switch should be scrutinized with great care. It’s another instance of rich corporations expanding what can be done with authors’ works without consulting them, defining terms in such a way that no one really understands how it affects authors’ copyrights, and doing so based on language in contracts that never anticipated an e-book subscription service. Authors need to sit up and take notice, and protest if they think their rights are being abrogated. If it’s not a great deal–which, let’s face it, is likely, given the insistence of the major publishers on paying at most a 25% net royalty rate on e-books–all the more reason for concern.

Which brings us to Scribd’s unauthorized uploads of copyrighted material. If you’d told me a couple of weeks ago that my first Writer Beware blog post would be about ebook piracy, I would have laughed. But it really looks as though Scribd has gone even farther into a very questionable area of monetizing the pirated books in its library, in two ways.

Firstly, they apparently only allow full access to pirated works to paid subscribers. Here’s a screenshot of the email I received after checking the Scribd site for unauthorized uploads of SFWA-related copyrighted material:

As you can see, this unauthorized copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, was illegally uploaded by Vladimir George Anghell, and Scribd is using it as bait for a 7-day free trial of their subscription service, that will, of course, transition automatically to a paid subscription if I do not cancel.

Think about it. All across the Scribd website, there are illegally uploaded, copyrighted files that you can only read in their entirety if you start paying Scribd, which doesn’t pay authors anything for those uploads. Almost as bad are the advertisements displayed next to pirated works.

Six years ago, Scribd initiated a system to monitor uploads and compare them to a database of copyrighted works, with the promise to delete anything that matched. It may be working, it may not, but there’s still an enormous amount of pirated work available there, and you have to ask yourself, do you want to support a site like Scribd by having your work sold there? If Scribd has to pay out royalties for an authorized version of a book, but the equivalent unauthorized upload acts as subscription bait and they need never pay out anything for access to it, where is their motivation to clean the site of the unauthorized versions?

Other companies are working on the book subscription model, Oyster Books being the most prominent, without the taint of unauthorized uploads. The deal Oyster Books offers to authors actually looks a little better, with pay-out occurring at 10% read rather than 20%.

It’s too early to tell if the subscription model will catch on and become a significant source of revenue for authors…but it just might. Future author contracts should treat these types of sales separately from straight ebook sales, and authors should be able to negotiate subscription terms independently from ebook sales. Contract language shouldn’t be re-purposed when technological changes affect the publishing world. Instead, new terms should be negotiated.

As for Scribd, is this the next step in the evolution of ebook publishing, in which a corporation simultaneously profits from pirated works and makes deals with traditional publishers? However subscription services work out, don’t count the Scribd model out, because it’s building on its large base of copyright scofflaws to create the most ruthless and author-unfriendly of them all.

EDITED 1/10/13 TO ADD: Via Publishers Weekly, Scribd’s Andrew Weinstein has responded to this blog post, acknowledging the presence of pirated content on Scribd and outlining the steps the company says it’s taking to combat the problem.



  1. I do not understand why Scribd did not have more court orders against it for copyright violations. And what about the publishers?.

  2. Anonymous–

    Scribd's copyright infringement reporting page is here. It includes a form you can fill out.

  3. I have just noticed through a google search that my work has been pirated and listed on this site.
    What can I do to have it removed?

  4. Wow seems like this has been a problem all along. I published my book, Jittery Snow last October to Smashwords and Amazon to sell at only 99cent and only today I found out it can be downloaded at Scribd as a paid subscriber. All these done without my consent. I wonder how many more of such apps are doing this.

  5. They also host fanfiction, which you have to pay to read. Let that sink it… not only is it fanfiction, most of what's there is stolen from the original author. Sorry, the only thing most of us think this site is good for is a place to house thieves. I've had more than one battle with them to get my stuff down.

  6. Not sure why some people were asked for credit card to search, Searching from the home page without logging in displays search results(maybe something changed?)

    The following quote is not quite correct "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."
    While Scribd is a little misleading regarding paid subscription, It costs nothing to sign up. With a free account you can download a document by uploading one. You can buy books from publishers via Scribd.

    One major problem with copyright is how do you determine if something is in/out of copyright if the copyright holders can't be found?

    Under Australian copyright law you can copy something if you are not able to obtain by purchasing in a reasonable amount of time.

    A lot of people who download copyrighted material probably are not going to purchase it in the first place whereas others 'try before buy'. Some people seem to be a bit naive about digital data it can't be truly secured or removed, short of an electro magnetic pulse.

    Does copyright law need to even exist? The only people I think making money would be the lawyers.

  7. I've just found 4 of my books up there. And this is on top of the two dozen or so I've already had removed. To my knowledge none of the uploaders have had their accounts removed so I can't say I have all that much love for Scribd.

  8. For years I have been doing takedowns from Scribd once a quarter. The usual drill is that the content will be removed without response or comment. (F… me, right?) There is rarely (ever?) a ban on the person that stole it, and that same person may still have loads of content posted that was stolen from other authors. I don't have a huge body of work, but much of it is stolen and posted to Scribd again, again, and again.

  9. I'm wondering if authors should start a communal website where they publicly post which works on ScribeD are pirated, to make others aware of the problem and to pressure ScribeD to actually do something to ensure that works are uploaded legitimately and to clear out the pirated ones.

  10. Verizon is sponsoring a page ripping off an Elloras Cave work.

    Scribd deleted the uploader but not the content

    In another example, check out the "Collections" for rampant infringement.

    Innocent readers can be misled by Scribd into collecting dozens of copyrighted works into their accounts, although they upload nothing, users who collect collections are being encouraged to duplicate and publish copyrighted works uploaded by persons other than the authors or the publishers.

    i can't help wondering about "Collections" under a publisher's name when the uploads are by alphabet-soup named individuals. For example

    The entire "Collections" model appears to educate booklovers that copyright has no value and no meaning, and that everyone is entitled to free entertainment.

  11. One of Sara Craven's books was uploaded by someone called Pebbles3606

    Pebbles3606 is an active account sponsored in part by Honey Bunches of Oats and a Facebook contest on this page which appears to display a Harlequin author's work including the copyright page, yet anyone may make a copy on Scribd to their own "library" or download it.

    Something should be done about corporate advertisers who fund copyright infringement and about Google whose ad click/ ad sense programs place these paid ads on pages that infringe copyright.

    A quick search of Scribd demonstrates how many huge businesses are ripping off authors and other content creators with impunity.

    Safe Harbor laws must be revised to protect authors.

  12. To search on Scribd: Look up at the top left. By the "Upload" button, there's a magnifying glass. Click on it and it expands into a search box. I tried the search function and it seems to be pretty good (I didn't find my books there, but I did find one of Ann Crispin's).

  13. Scribd has the most lousy norms compared to other leading User Generated Content Platforms.

    As a personal experience, i found that they reject legitimate objections mechanically and ask the aggreived parties to get court orders post which they will consider the request.

    It is well known that a court order may take months and a few thousand dollars. Any scrupulous people can violate the Freedom of Expression that is happily aided by platforms like Scribd, and cause severe harm to settle scores.

    Its high time that platforms like Scribd are given a tight whip to straigthen up, before innocent people get harmed by their lousy policies and lack of basic application of mind.

  14. I went into the FAQ section and under the question about what kind of books were available, the word "browse" was a highlighted link. I pushed it and a search bar appeared at the top where you can type in names of books or authors. I'm not there. I don't know whether to be relieved or insulted.

  15. If you do a net search with appropriate keywords for how to download from Scribed without an account (that is without paying), you will find a number of methods. Note that anyone can upload anything (including parts of a book, not the whole thing) and they don't have to attribute it to the author. One method is that anyone who contributes something can get something free, but note that Scribed does not check what kind of random junk from the user's computer garbage pail may have been uploaded to get traded content with actual value.

  16. Theresa and Tracey, I ran into the same problem. Try searching on "your book title" + scribd. Also "your book title" + free.

  17. I was hoping to see if my books were up there, as well, Theresa and had the same problem. I'm not giving them any of my info just to find out of my books are there.

  18. I just tried to check for my novels in their database, but was unable to search without giving them a credit card number! Any way to check without doing that?

  19. I noticed on Oct 1st last year that copyrighted works were being monetized. Credit for uploading was given to individuals who had been banned/lost their membership, but access to the "orphan" work was being sold to subscribers without compensation to the copyright owner.

    Authors should look for their own books under "Documents", which is where Scribd puts works uploaded by "individuals". If Scribd can tell what was uploaded by an "individual" and what was officially uploaded, one would think that they know what is pirated and what is not.

  20. Your basic point is well taken: Scribd's basic business model has been so tainted for so long that dealing with them is a bit like making a pact with the devil. And their chief attraction is likely to resemble blackmail: Whatever you do, we will include your books but distribute through us and we'll purge our system of bootleg copies of them.

    I've included Scribed in the distribution for my Smashwords books, but somehow the process leaves me feeling dirty. I can only hope that Smashwords applies some pressure on them to clean up their act.

  21. Not a big fan of subscription services. I prefer to buy the book and then be able to read the book whenever I choose to do so.

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