Syl Arena Fights Back

Over on the right side bar, you’ve seen Syl Arena’s “Speedliter’s Handbook” featured since this blog relaunched at the beginning of the year.  At first, it was the photography book I was most looking forward to. Currently, it’s the photography book I’m reading and learning immensely from.  I’m sure I’ll have a full review of it at some point.

Last week, while searching for the blog of the unrelated Canadian Speedlighter, Michael Willems, I tripped over a Google search result for Syl Arena’s book — free for download on Scribd.  I passed along the information to the author through Twitter, and a DMCA takedown notice was issued inside of 24 hours.

Featured now on Arena’s “Speedliting” blog is an article titled:

“Hey Ann Hillsgrove, I Think That You and 101 Other Photographers Stole From My Family”

In it, Arena tracks down the person who uploaded the book and made it available for free for one and all.  He provides a screenshot of her Scribd profile.  He even mentions that the offender, Ann Hillsgrove, has easy to find social network accounts at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

That made me chuckle.  I’m not sure which is worse on the internet: Everyone thinking the internet gives them ultimate privacy and the right to do anything they want without fear of backlash or responsibility, or the belief that everyone should be public and social and linked together, but that we should ignore that when it’s inconvenient?  (In my last job interview, I pointed the interviewee to my blog as a writing sample.  I wasn’t going to hide it. I can’t.  Google me and you’ll find me easily. I couldn’t hide anymore if I wanted to.)

But it was the further discussion of piracy that brought me back into the same circles of circular arguments I’ve heard for the last ten years or more.  Trust me, if you’re active in the comic book world, you know the astounding numbers of comics that are pirated every week, and you wonder how much damage that’s wreaked on the industry, as a whole. But the pirates there will tell you how it’s for the best for the industry, and how it keeps people in the game.

And I used Linux at home for a year. So I know all about open file sharing and public licensing of creative material.  That’s all legal, though.

Yes, sharing things on the internet can lead to big sales to those on the internet who can read, or who have already read, your something for free.

But, ultimately, that’s not my decision or your decision.  It’s the copyright holder’s.  In this case, it’s Syl Arena and his publisher, Peach Pit Press. Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that the book might sell more copies if more of it was available on-line, like some sort of blog which posts a chapter of the book a week for the next few months.

That’s not my decision to make for Arena.  Nor was it Ann’s.

More after the break, including Google’s ultimate revenge, my one fault in Arena’s logic, and the ownership of the issue at Scribd:

The only spot where Arena goes wrong in the article is in the math near the end, where he posits that the 100+ illegal downloads of his book took $200 out of his pocket. As with most rampant pirating, a lot of it is done by people who wouldn’t buy the thing they’re stealing if they had the chance.  Absolutely, Arena loses money on this piracy, but I don’t think it would have been $200.  I’d bet it would be less than half, but that’s just my gut speaking.  Even experiments in appeasing pirates by giving stuff away results in much larger numbers of downloads than subsequent sales to the people who downloaded the work.

The bigger victim is the digital book reader.  If this Scribd document was merely a copy of the digitally downloaded eBook version, then it only shows publishers that eBooks aren’t secure and will kill sales of the print edition through easy pirating.  For those of us who pay for PDFs and eBooks more and more, it’s giving us a bad name and giving publishers cold feet about adopting a more aggressive digital campaign.  Thank goodness for forward-looking publishers like Peach Pit Press and O’Reilly. Let’s hope problems like this don’t disrupt the evolution of photographic education.

In the end, stamping out this Scribd file isn’t going to solve the problem of piracy for this book.  I’m sure it’s out there elsewhere in corners of the internet I don’t even know exist.  But it is a victory for the process, for the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and for the rights of an author to the control of his copyright.  I just hope it didn’t distress the books’ author too greatly. The book is obviously a product of his passion for photography, and he did make a lot of sacrifices to bring it to market.  Someone stealing it like this is personally hurtful to him, of course, but I hope he’s able to shake it off and keep appearing on dozens of podcasts to promote it more and sell more.

I’m sure I’ll be writing a review of the book — which I bought at Amazon — just as soon as I finish reading it sometime in the third fiscal quarter. 😉

There is also the question of Sribd’s culpability in this.  Arena indicates that he doesn’t think the site is without culpability in this matter.  This is a debate topic that’s raged for years.  YouTube, it is said, rose to popularity on the backs of illegally copied materials.  The whole BitTorrent protocol is assumed illegal because of the materials that most pass through it.  Napster wasn’t <i>all</i> ripped CDs posted to the internet, you know.

But when a site hits a certain size, it’s impossible to patrol.  YouTube, for examples, gets dozens or hundreds of hours of video uploaded to it every minute of every day.  They have put systems into place now to identify copyrighted materials and automatically boot them, but it won’t ever be perfect.

BitTorrent is a decentralized system. It’s impossible to shut it down, nor should it be shut down. It can be used to more efficiently transfer large files, such as Linux operation systems, across the internet.  Remember when it was rumored that the Apple TV would use Bit Torrent to distribute the traffic better?  It seems laughable now. Perhaps Netflix should look into it, given all the bits it’s pushing these days.

Napster was probably 95% piracy, sure, but it also included — well, OK, maybe Napster is a bad example.  Napster’s story is one of the internet learning what copyright law is, and a music industry needing to learn to cope with its users and their preferred distribution choices.

So should Scribd be held responsible for policing its service without outside help?  That’s both a legal question and a moral one. Legally, there’s an argument to be made — as YouTube had to deal with — that pro-actively policing content is akin to taking an editorial approach to materials and, thus, legally opening yourself up to lawsuits galore for the ones that slip through.  Quickly responding to DMCA notices — as they did for Arena — is possibly the most responsible thing they can do without opening themselves up for the kind of lawsuit that would end their service.

Morally, yes, they should block this kind of thing.  But how?  They put it in their terms of service.  They take down infringing material as soon as it’s pointed out to them.  Short of developing a system like YouTube uses to fingerprint files and look for copyrighted material (itself not a small undertaking), it’s an impossible task.

It sucks but, in the end, we all have to take responsibility for our own actions.  And the fact is, Ann Hillsgrove will be taking responsibility for hers now.  Google her name and her Facebook page comes up second.  The first return?  Syl Arena’s post about her infringing content.  The third result is a blog post from elsewhere titled “Who is Ann Hillsgrove and why did she steal of Syl Arena?”  Then, her LinkedIn account.

I <3 Google sometimes.

Update: Ann Hillsgrove makes an apology and explains how her router was hacked. And how that led to her Facebook account being hacked.  And then the hacker grabbed this one PDF off her computer and posted it to Scribd on her account, which is somehow tied into Facebook, I guess.  It’s all rather flimsy.

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