how misinformation harms authorsNate at Digital Reader featured an article in his Morning Coffee about opting out of Scribd if you’re a Smashwords author. I was curious as to the reasons the blogger thought I might want to do this, and I read the article. Which I discovered was some serious misinformation.

Not surprisingly, the blogger raised the piracy issue, but not the issue I thought he’d raise. I thought he’d talk about how the digital fingerprinting from Scribd was less than perfect and use that as a reason. Nope, he went in a whole ‘nother direction.

The problem with Scribd’s view on piracy is that they are working on the WRONG bloody end of the stick. Pirates aren’t going to be UPLOADING books – they’re going to be DOWNLOADING CONTENT. I just can’t believe they’ve not figured this out: Any subscription service for e-books is basically a smorgasbord for piracy. There is absolutely nothing I can see that stops a person from just downloading books wantonly and copying them to another source (laptop, memory card, thumbdrive) and then cracking the pointless DRM on them and having a field day with them. Believe me, it’s very, very easy, and once you know how, you can set up your system to do it automatically – all you have to do is drop your book into a folder and *POOF* it’s as free as a bird. And if they didn’t bother to even open the books before they return them, the author gets ZILCH.

I admit. My first reaction was “What was he smoking? You can’t do that.” Then my second reaction was, “let me test if you can do that.” So I did.

I downloaded a book into my Scribd for Android app and plugged my Nook into my hard drive. I did a search for the book title. Nothing. I opened every folder to see if the book was saved under a weird file name. Nope. I posted a comment to Nate’s blog, and he suggested I try dragging the book into Adobe Digital Editions on my desktop. Tried that. Nothing to drag.

As far as I could tell, as I’d suspected, the book is obscured in a database file somewhere. I’m sure with the right tools and know how, I could find the book and strip the DRM from it. However, this is beyond the skills (or desire) of the average user.

It’s true that it is easy to strip DRM from a book. However, it’s not easy to strip it from a book in Scribd. I presume Oyster is the same, and probably even more difficult because you’d need to jailbreak the device to get to the underlying file structure.

I have to question if the blogger has even tried Scribd. Just a few minutes with the app would have revealed that “downloading” a book doesn’t stick it in a folder somewhere. This is an example of the kind of misinformation that sets my teeth on edge. Several readers commented on how grateful they were to know how easy piracy is, which reinforced their decision not to distribute to Scribd.

Honestly, I don’t care if anyone distributes to Scribd or not, but I do believe people should make their decision based on sound information. And, yes, everyone should know to question what you read on the Internet, but still…

Of course, if someone wants to show me an easy way to pirate out of Scribd (I can figure out how to pirate into it), point me in the right direction, and I’ll amend this post.

Update: Nate did some more digging and wrote his own article on the subject where he added some detail about the likely file format Scribd is using. His digging seems to confirm what I saw, that it’s not possible for the average user to just download and strip these books.

In case I’ve not said it before, I’m anti-DRM in general (and don’t add it to the books I sell). However, I’m not bothered by it in a subscription service where I never expected to “own” the book. In this case, it reminds the honest people to stay honest without, in my opinion, hurting anyone.

Image credit: by 26livinsgston under a Creative Commons license


  1. I don’t use Scribd, but I’d be very surprised if its content couldn’t be ‘pirated’ via a simple screenshot program. It would be a little tedious for a long book, but ten minutes’ web research would be enough for most people to learn how to automate the process. As Cory Doctorow pointed out long ago, you can’t ‘protect’ something which is going to be displayed on a screen — if nothing else, you can simply photograph it with a digital camera.

  2. I’m honestly surprised there isn’t a more robust Bookz scene thanks to the available of high speed scanners and OCR software.

    Step 1: Band saw off the binding
    Step 2: Feed through high speed OCR copier
    Step 3: Profit! (from street cred)

    Note to writers, your stuff is free no matter what you do. Engage with your fans so that they choose to support you.

    • @Sturmovik. You hardly need the scanners today. With DRM so easy to crack, people buy the books from Amazon, crack the DRM and then return the book. Costs practically nothing. Sure the Amazon account may be blocked for too many returns, but they can just open another one. I’ve heard many anecdotal tales of a book appearing on a pirate site within just a day or two of a book return. Heck, I noticed it myself.

      However, I completely agree with your note to writers. When authors becomes a “real people” to readers, it’s much harder to rip them off.

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