An Internet Pirate Stole My Memoir

08/25/2010 06:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Scribd advertises itself as a social publishing web site where you can

* UPLOAD your writings and documents instantly
* DISCOVER unique content
* SCRIBBLE what you're reading and publishing
* SUBSCRIBE to your favorite Scribd publishers

That's how Scribd puts it. They don't add that you can also steal people's books with impunity if you want to, but you sure can, since somebody stole one of mine.

I had never heard of this site until recently, and then a few weeks ago, I accidentally Googled a link to me and Scribd. What the hell was anything I'd written doing there? When I clicked it on, I was horrified. Someone with the screen name of "patguitar" had scanned and illegally uploaded my memoir My Germany last year and it had gotten hundreds of reads. This person had also apparently uploaded over a dozen other books that had been read by thousands of people.

Now, I've been surprised before by unexpected appearances of my work. A writer in The New Yorker echoed a Salon article of mine without attribution. And years ago, before the Internet ruled our lives, an Edith Wharton scholar published a book that used some very specific observations I'd made about the ways the emotion of shame appeared in Wharton's work. There was no mention of my scholarship.

I called this author and raised the question gently. She wondered if perhaps we'd been thinking along similar lines? I reminded her that I had sent her some of my articles about the role of shame in the specific Wharton novellas she mentioned and she'd responded very positively to them. When I suggested her publisher add an erratum slip, she objected: "I couldn't do that--it would look like plagiarism!"

But all that seems petty compared to stealing a whole book that took me several years to write.

As soon as I discovered the theft, I emailed Scribd's copyright department with a copyright infringement complaint laid out in the elaborate format they require. To their credit, I heard back the same day that the book had been removed. No apology, though. And when I asked for information to contact this thief, I was told I would need a subpoena.

So Scribd creates an environment where people can easily break the law if they want to, and when they do, Scribd effectively protects the perpetrator. The staffer I dealt with also felt he could be rude to me after I was grossly ripped off and was angry about it. Nice.

People signing up for a Scribd account are warned about copyright infringement in the Terms of Service agreement, but so what? There's no vetting of what gets uploaded, so unless an author (or a friend) stumbles across theft the way I did, illegally uploaded books can be up there till the crack of doom.

Even worse, Scribd won't boot a user immediately if they've stolen a book:

"Please note that Scribd will promptly terminate without notice any User's access to the Scribd Platform if that User is determined by Scribd to be a 'repeat infringer'. A repeat infringer is a User who has been notified by Scribd of infringing activity violations more than twice and/or who has had their User Content or any other user-submitted content removed from the Scribd Platform more than twice."

Are they for real? "More than twice"? It shouldn't even happen once.