Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ambivalently Scribd

Back in March I announced on my other blog that The Late Age of Print was available on the document sharing site, Scribd. I was excited to see it there for many reasons, chief among them the Creative Commons license I'd negotiated with my publisher, Columbia University Press, which provides for the free circulation and transformation of the electronic edition of Late Age. The book's presence on Scribd was, for me, evidence of the CC license really working. I was also excited by Scribd's mobile features, which meant, at least in theory, that the e-book version of Late Age might enjoy some uptake on one or more of the popular e-reading systems I often write about here.

Lately, though, I'm beginning to feel less comfortable with the book's presence there. Scribd has grown and transformed considerably since March, adding all sorts of features to make the site more sticky -- things like commenting, social networking, an improved interface, and more. These I like, but there's one new feature I'm not feeling: ads by Google. Here's a screenshot from today, showing what The Late Age of Print looks like on Scribd.

Late Age on Scribd

Note the ad in the bottom-right portion of the screen for a book called, Aim High! 101 Tips for Teens, available on (Clearly, somebody at Google/Scribd needs to work on their cross-promotions.) You can subscribe to an ad-free version of Scribd for $2.99/month or $29.99/year.

Now, I'm not one of those people who believes that all advertising is evil. Some advertising I find quite helpful. Moreover, on feature-rich sites like Scribd (and in newspapers and magazines, on TV, etc.), it's what subsidizes the cost of my own and others' "free" experience.

Here's the problem, though. The Creative Commons license under which the e-edition of Late Age was issued says this:
This PDF is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License, available at or by mail from Creative Commons, 171 Second St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94105 U.S.A.

“Noncommercial” as defined in this license specifically excludes any sale of this work or any portion thereof for money, even if the sale does not result in a profit by the seller or if the sale is by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or NGO.

I'm pretty sure the presence of advertising on Scribd violates the terms of the license, albeit in an indirect way. It's not like Late Age is being sold there for money. However, it does provide a context or occasion for the selling of audience attention to advertisers, as well as the selling of an ad-free experience to potential readers. Either way, it would seem as though the book has become a prompt for commercial transactions.

As of today, the site has recorded close to 2,000 "reads" of Late Age (whatever that means), which would indicate that Scribd has managed to reach a small yet significant group of people by piggybacking on my book.

Honestly, I'm not sure what to do about this.

In software terms I've always considered the e-edition of Late Age to be more like shareware than freeware. That is, my publisher and I are comfortable with some folks free-riding provided that others -- hopefully many others -- go on to purchase the printed edition of the book. The e-edition is not, in other words, a total freebie. Columbia has invested significant time, money, and energy in producing the book, and if nothing else the Press deserves to recoup its investment. Me? I'm more interested in seeing the arguments and ideas spread, but not at the cost of Columbia losing money on the project.

In any case, the situation with advertising on Scribd raises all sorts of vexing questions about what counts as a "commercial" or "non-commercial" use of a book in the late age of print. This became clear to me after finishing Chris Kelty's Two Bits: The Cultural Politics of Free Software (Duke U.P., 2008). Kelty discusses how changes in technology, law, and structures of power and authority have created a host of issues for people in and beyond the world of software to work through: can free software still be free if it's built on top of commercial applications, even in part? can collectively-produced software be copyrighted, and if so, by whom? should a single person profit from the sale of software that others have helped to create? and so on.

Analogously, can the use of an e-book to lure eyeballs, and thus ad dollars, be considered "non-commercial?" What about using the volume to market an ad-free experience? More broadly, how do you define the scope of "non-commercial" once book content begins to migrate across diverse digital platforms? I don't have good answers to any of these questions, although to the first two I intuitively want to say, "no." Then again, I'm pretty sure we're dealing with an issue that's never presented itself in quite this way before, at least in the book world. Consequently, I'll refrain from making any snap-judgments.

As I've said here before, though, I recently ported The Differences and Repetitions Wiki from Wikidot to its own independent site after Wikidot became inundated with advertising. In general I'm not a fan of my work being used to sell lots of other, unrelated stuff, especially when there are more traditionally non-commercial options available for getting the work out.

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