November 24th, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Copyright: Who did What,

Now we come to the reason I started working on these posts....a Situation that occurred a few months ago and the internet and other fallout of that Situation.

The best  full description is Doranna Durgin's, online at
starting with her posts from September 5, including September 12, and ending with October 17.   Yes, you have to scroll down to find the September 5 one and then up for the others, but it's worth it (so are her other blogs on leashless dogs, showing dogs, writing, etc.)

My even briefer one is this:  a site with content from a lot of writers, Scribd,  did not have permission of all those writers to post their work.  It did have permission from some.  Writers who had discovered their work was posted without permission told SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) about it, and some of them asked SFWA's help in getting the work removed from the site.   SFWA had, at that time, a committee which had contacted sites on member-writers' behalf, and was more effective than writers had been on their own.   The SFWA VP looked at the list of writers whose work was there, and sent a message to Scribd saying the work should be removed.  He made a mistake, and included a few writers (far fewer than the ones whose work was there without permission) who did want their work on that site.    One of those writers was Cory Doctorow, long an advocate of Creative Commons licensing and open file sharing.

The SFWA VP  made a mistake.  He should have been more careful.   That's a point I made in private SFWA correspondence at the time, and I fully agree with the apology issued by SFWA's president, made within 24 hours of the discovery of the error--individually to the writers involved and publicly to the world at large.  SFWA's president also dissolved the committee, which until then had an unblemished record.

However: within the same 24 hours, rumors were flying around the internet, and becoming entrenched, that 1) SFWA intentionally violated the rights of those whose work was taken down--that it was a malicious act by SFWA-the-organization, not just its VP and 2) that SFWA was "going after" people who had downloaded files from Scribd by those writers whose work was removed at their request.   That SFWA was, in fact, behaving like the RIAA.   A friend of mine, not a writer, was posting to that effect on someone's newsgroup and refused to believe that it wasn't happening.  

The original mistake was a happy accident for those who oppose copyright protection on the internet and have long  supported open file sharing, much as 9/11 was a gift to George Bush and Karl Rove.   And they made full use of it, just as Bush has done with the terrorist attack...though the damage to those writers whose work was removed from Scribd was minimal (their work was, in most cases, available elsewhere on the internet and it was quickly restored to Scribd.)   As they posted inflammatory posts about how their rights had been violated and how horrible SFWA is, they never mentioned the hundreds of writers whose rights were violated in the opposite direction....and whose work, once loose on the internet, can never be fully recovered (unlike removed work, which is easy to replace.)  Nor did they stop at what SFWA actually did...they made explicit parallels to the RIAA practices, as if those were actions SFWA had taken, was taking, or was at least contemplating.

To add to the irony of the situation,  Doctorow's infringement of LeGuin's rights was occurring in the same period that he was complaining about his rights being infringed...and one of the reasons he says he did not respond to her earlier requests that her work be taken down from BoingBoing was his personal feeling about the SFWA he refused to read email from the VP--whom LeGuin had asked to make contact on her behalf.   That was certainly another mistake on his part.

Back to basics:  A writer has the right to control the publication of his/her work.   A writer can choose to give it away.  A writer can choose to publish it on the internet under any license, or lack of license, the writer chooses.  The writer can choose to use only print publication.   The decision on publication (yes/no) and which type of publication is up to the writer.  Not to anyone else.   (The writer rejected by a publisher is free to self-publish--or the writer can choose to continue seeking a publisher-partner--it really is up to the writer.)   Anyone who--at any point--takes control of the writer's work away from the writer, without permission, and publishes the work is infringing on copyright--is legally in the wrong.  It's against the law. 

In terms of effects, given the nature of the internet, putting up a work that against a writer's wishes does far more harm than taking one down for a day or so against a writer's wishes.   Why?  Because once a text exists on the internet without a correct copyright notice and some protection,  the horses are out of the barn, the cats are out of the bag, and the writer cannot ever fully recover control of his/her work.   Removing a block of text from one site does not mean that the text is thereby safely back in the of more popular writers may have been reposted from that one site to another one (that the writer doesn't know about yet), may have been downloaded multiple times, and may already have resulted in lost sales.   For exactly that reason, the removal of a text cannot do the same harm if someone wanted their text to be available, and replacing it is easy. 

For about two months, I was part of a committee appointed by the SFWA president, Michael Capobianco, to make recommendations about how SFWA should deal with copyright infringement issues in the future, and during that time I did not utter on the current Situations.  We were given access to both the details of the current Situations as they started and evolved, and also to the prior workings of the committee that had dealt with e-piracy.  Now our work is done; the recommendations have been made.  Now I'm free to write about it (both the details of the Situations, and what my opinion is.) 

Here's the straight skinny.   SFWA never "went after" writer-members who wanted their stuff online either uncontrolled or under a Creative Commons license.  SFWA never "went after" people who downloaded files from sites who held such material.  SFWA did, with the consent of, and at the request of, members whose work had been pirated, file DCMA requests for those members with those sites, because the organization was able to get work taken down when individual writers' requests had been ignored.   Over the years, that committee had been successful time after time, without making any mistakes and accidentally including the "wrong" material.   Once, this year, the VP made that mistake.   It was a serious mistake, and it was dealt with immediately and with a full apology by the president of the organization.   Some writers have individually asked that people who downloaded their work illegally erase those files and not share them more fully....that, again, is an individual decision and is not "going after" anyone.  

Next rock: Myths and the Marketplace