Posted in Media, Opinion, Technology

All your eggs in one Scribd

This blog post at the Globe and Mail is kind of funny.

It started off innocent enough: the Globe wanted to embed a part of the auditor-general’s report into a news article, so it posted a chapter to a website called Scribd, which converts PDFs into embeddable Flash applications.

The auditor-general, however, apparently took exception to that move. It wasn’t because of copyright infringement – the report is freely available on the AG’s website. It was because, the office said, “On the Scribd website, it appears, or it makes it appear, that anyone using the document or accessing the document has an ability to adapt the content and use it in different ways.”

Their concern was people altering the document, and potentially making others believe the alterations were genuine.

Setting aside for the moment the AG office’s apparent misinterpretation of technology and the power people have to alter other people’s Scribd documents, not to mention the fact that this in no way prevents people from forging AG reports (is this really a big issue? Is there a huge auditor-general-report counterfeiting industry out there I don’t know about?), I suppose such a concern makes sense. And besides, all they were asking was to link to the report on the AG’s website instead, a small accommodation.

The Globe initially relented, replacing their embedded Scribd document with a link to the PDF on the AG’s website. But after the public (well, okay, noted copyright activist Michael Geist) objected, the Globe changed its mind and reposted the Scribd document.

The auditor-general, determined to push its case, then filed a copyright infringement claim with Scribd itself, and Scribd took the document down. The Globe responded by hosting a copy of the PDF on its server and pointing to that.

As Geist says, this is a clear case of government exploiting crown copyright against the media (unlike in the United States, government publications and works in Canada are subject to copyright, though it is rarely enforced). It also brings up questions about the Globe’s editorial processes and the auditor-general’s office wanting to control information.

But the last part of this story makes me wonder: Are we relying a bit too much on fly-by-night third-party free-as-in-beer services?

It’s one thing to use Google Analytics or WordPress or Linux, but Scribd? Twitter? CoverItLive? These services are young, run mainly out of venture capital financing (instead of a sustainable business model), and there’s no guarantee they won’t just close up shop tomorrow, taking all our data with them. (And unlike Linux or WordPress, they’re not open source, which means they control their software and your data.)

As the Scribd case showed the Globe, the service can unilaterally delete your data, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Twitter has periodic outages that nobody can control, yet some have already turned Twitter into a mission-critical component of their business model.

Just because it’s free – even to big media companies – doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

One thought on “All your eggs in one Scribd

  1. Jack B.

    You’re comparing apples to oranges. Scribd, Twitter, and also Google Analytics are web services whereas OpenOffice and Firefox are standalone applications.

    However, you are right in that any business which places or outsources core business processes onto web services without having signed a service level agreement (i.e. a service guarantee) with the service operator or having a failsafe or backup in place, is playing with fire.

    Furthermore, in regard to the unilateral removal of content by the service operators, there were some great negative examples of this approach during the protests in Iran: After the big media (e.g. CNN) started broadcasting protest videos copied off of Youtube, suddenly the original protest videos were removed because the automated copyright infringement detection mechanisms considered these original videos to be illegal copies of CNN material! In other words, the users were punished for something they didn’t do.

    Reply

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