Scribd Puts My Old Uploads Behind a Paywall and Goes Onto My Shitlist

Over the last year, I’ve become a heavy user of Scribd. I have posted over 100 documents to Scribd that have generated over 100,000 reads. Posting to Scribd is fast and easy–much easier than using my extremely cumbersome web hosting solution at the university–and the documents are automatically indexed in Google for increased visibility. I also like getting the stats, which are easier to see than through my university solution. Finally, I used Scribd for a surprisingly effective self-publication experiment with my Internet Law course reader; I’ll write more about that experiment soon.

Unfortunately, Scribd recently made two really bad choices that totally destroyed my trust. First, they changed their default settings so that the site automatically “readcasts” (i.e., announces on my Scribd home page) any documents that I visited. Once I realized they were doing this, I self-discovered that I could opt-out on the settings page (buried under “sharing”), but I don’t feel I got adequate notice of the change. Haven’t they learned anything from Facebook’s Beacon fiasco or Google’s Buzz fiasco? Since apparently the message isn’t sinking in, let me spell out what should have been obvious: PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO AUTOMATICALLY PUBLICLY ANNOUNCE THE DOCUMENTS THEY ARE READING.

With the deep goodwill I’ve developed towards Scribd over the past year, I might be able to excuse that mistake (barely) as overzealous cluelessness. However, the other mistake simply isn’t excusable. With inadequate notice to account-holders, Scribd set up a new program where old files on Scribd (it’s unclear how old; their FAQ simply says the conversion happens after “an initial period of time on Scribd”) are automatically put behind a paywall where readers have to pay Scribd to access them. [Update: Evil Wylie reports that the files are archived after 2 months.]

On the settings page, I am given the opportunity to categorically opt out of having my documents go behind their paywall, but the setting is hardly clear. The configuration choice reads “Do not include my documents in the Scribd Archive program.” I presume this opaque wording was implicitly designed to communicate that being in the Scribd Archive is a good thing and I should want to do, but staying in the program sure isn’t in the best interests of me or my readers. [Contrast the communicative effect of a toggle option saying “I don’t want my old documents behind Scribd’s paywall.”] I don’t recall any other notice that Scribd had put my documents behind a paywall; I learned about it from a reader who got prompted to pay to access an older post.

Scribd’s paywall stunt instantly put Scribd on my shitlist because it vitiates the reason I chose to use Scribd in the first place. I don’t know that they ever promised me perpetual free access to the documents I post, but their value proposition always has been open access to the documents–freely shared with everyone and indexed in the search engines. The paywall destroys that value proposition. They’ve taken the documents that I wanted to freely share with the public (many of them public documents like court rulings and filings) and made them inaccessible. If my readers can’t freely get the documents I wanted to share with them, then what’s the point of using Scribd in the first place???

I also feel like Scribd used me. With their implicit promise of open access, they got me to share a lot of high-interest documents and generate lots of link love, then they flipped the default (from free to paywall) as part of a cash grab. I could check out of Scribd, but then I would break a lot of links and it would take a lot of time. So now I feel trapped. It’s a terrible feeling.

[Note: I always knew that Scribd could shut down and break the links, but I was willing to take the gamble that Scribd would succeed or someone would want to buy them up if they didn’t. I didn’t expect they would pull a bush league move like this.]

[Also: it would be nice if Scribd provided a bulk exporter tool that would allow me to easily port all the posts to another provider. That would give me another way to get the documents out from behind their paywall, although it wouldn’t really help moving the archive to another provider because I’d still have to fix the existing links to those files.]

The most frustrating aspect is that I can’t imagine Scribd’s paywall will be a path to riches for them. People hate paywalls, and in many cases the materials can be found freely elsewhere on the web through a search. Plus, when Scribd’s power users opt out of the paywall (as I would expect them to do once they realize Scribd screwed them), many of the most popular documents will end up outside the program anyway. As a result, this seems like an ill-conceived and possibly desperate move–they are trying to grab a few shekels now at the expense of destroying the trust of their power users.

If you are a Scribd user, I recommend two things:

1) Immediately change your settings to opt out of their paywall program. This FAQ tells you how.

2) I’m taking my business elsewhere, and you might consider joining me. I don’t have a new destination yet, but I’ll post it here when I decide. Meanwhile, I welcome your recommendations of a more trustworthy file hosting service than Scribd. Others have referred me to Rapidshare and Docstoc. [Update: also Slideshare and Docs.com.] What do you think of those services as alternatives to Scribd? Are there better ones? If we decide there isn’t a better choice than Scribd, then I will go back to using my cumbersome university hosting option.

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As a courtesy, I sent a prepublication draft of the above post to Scribd’s press team and asked for a response. They were kind enough to reply to me pretty quickly with the following:

Thanks again for your note and the opportunity to respond. You’re right that our communication around the Archive should have been more clear. We’ve been working on ways to better message the changes and tweak Archives to be more user-friendly, and hopefully, you’ll notice these changes soon.

Our goal has always been to develop easy-to-use products that provide open access to information and that our community finds useful and fun; it’s why we don’t restrict reading access online or on mobile devices, for example, and why we’ve given content uploaders the option to remove all their material from the Archive permanently.

As a start-up, we’re constantly trying to strike the right balance: building products that people love but that also help us make money (to cover server cost and everything else associated with running a company). We’re learning, and there’s a lot we can do better.

That’s why we’d like to invite you to participate in our newly created User Advisory Board, which we’re putting together to ensure that user feedback is incorporated in our product development. I’d also like to extend an open invitation for you to come in and meet the team.

This isn’t much of a response, although I’ll be interested to see what changes they roll out. The only thing that makes sense is for them to kibosh the Archive program altogether. Even if they do, I still don’t think I can trust a company that thought the paywall was a good idea, and their concerns about server costs make me wonder if they are financially wobbly. As a result, I’m still on my quest for more trustworthy alternatives, and I welcome your input.

UPDATE: In response to my post, some folks invoked the misguided meme: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Mike Masnick tackles–and busts–the meme.

UPDATE 2 (Sept. 28): Scribd ultimately apologized for its launching of Scribd Archive, but not after some second thoughts. Techcrunch covered their vacillation. Scribd further made Readcasts opt-in instead of opt-out, but no apologies for that poor choice. I’m still researching alternatives to Scribd.

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