Why Scribd Changes Copy-Pasted Text to 104 Point Comic Sans

Feature, not a bug.

Oct 5 2016, 11:00am

Comics Sans room at Google's Singapore office. Image: Jon Russell/Flickr

While reviewing a public legal document to prepare for a podcast covering Friday news dumps, I cut and pasted a couple of lines I wanted to paraphrase. The document had been uploaded to the digital document site Scribd. My on-screen text was normal size, but cutting and pasting into a text document changed the font and size to 104 Comic Sans MS in a text editor or 78 Comic Sans MS in a Word doc. (Try it yourself.)

A Scribd spokesperson reached via email said: "We've had many requests from our uploaders to make it more difficult for readers to copy and paste original content. These measures may appear differently, depending on the document and program you're pasting into." The reason? "To deter plagiarism."

I reached out to Heavy.com news editor Tom Cleary, who'd downloaded the document in question from PACER, a service that provides public access to federal court documents, and uploaded it to be used in a colleague's report on the ruling. Cleary said he didn't take any special measures to make the document difficult to copy. "Since it's a public court document I wasn't concerned about [plagiarism]," he told me. He said he didn't believe he'd changed any settings when uploading the document, and was unaware that cutting and pasting the document changed the font size. "We're trying to give more people access to source documents when we upload them, not restrict it. So it wasn't my intention to make it harder for people to quote from it or use it themselves," he said.

Scribd's plagiarism reasoning is odd for a number of reasons, even if you set aside the fact that it's not uncommon to find documents on Scribd that were uploaded without permission. First, it's not clear how turning text into silly oversized font sizes would actually prevent plagiarism. A plagiarist—or person using the material for non-plagiarism purposes, like to quote from a document—could simply change the font and size. Second, there's no setting asking users if they'd like to have this measure taken. (I uploaded a test document myself, and it turned into 57-point Arial in the cut and paste—though I hadn't asked for this, uh, feature.) Scribd didn't exactly address these specific issues, instead quoting an unnamed team member who said, "All content on Scribd is meant to be read within the Scribd experience. Our reader is customizable for individuals' reading preferences."

Frankly, keeping people from copying things is not a strategy that's worked super well for the internet from its earliest days up until right now.

If you want to avoid inconveniencing readers who just want to cut and paste from a public document for you can choose to upload documents to an alternative service, like DocumentCloud. Right now it's used primarily by journalists who report on or publish primary source documents, though the platform is also giving accounts (on a trial basis) to those who work with public in related industries. Aspiring users must apply for an account.

"Plagiarism is not our primary concern," said Ted Han, DocumentCloud's technology lead. "Frankly, keeping people from copying things is not a strategy that's worked super well for the internet from its earliest days up until right now. Sure, you can be a nuisance to people who are copying text out of a document, but this is literally what the internet is for—to transmit text. It's going to be challenging for anyone—whether they're in the right or not—to prevent people from doing so."