Rowling plagiarism row rattles on; the sound of a broken system

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2010

Blind Justice?Remember me mentioning a plagiarism lawsuit filed against J K Rowling, wherein some dude claims prior art of the Harry Potter books because of his self-published work, and tries to take her for a whole lot of money?

Well, it’s soon to arrive in court, and Teresa Nielsen-Hayden has a good summary of matters from the publishing perspective; in a nutshell, the guy doesn’t have much of a hope of winning, and most commentators on the case demonstrate a massive misunderstanding of the authorial process. Or, in other words, the likelihood of two authors coming up with a similar idea is pretty high, and so you can’t really sue someone for publishing a book that uses an idea you once used. Or at least you shouldn’t be able to; nothing seems to stop people from trying, though. [image by hans s]

The problem is, as I’ve mentioned before, that copyright law (like most law) tends to favour the party which can afford the better legal respresentation, and that in the case of written fiction, precedents for the roadblocking of vaguely similar works by an author or their estate (a la the late Salinger) are corrosive to the creative process that copyright law is nominally intended to protect; stealing the work of others is wrong, certainly, but is reworking their themes or ideas only to be permitted within the limited (though flexible) framework of satire?

The imminent ebook explosion and recent high-profile flaps about critically-acclaimed works which involve some degree of plagiarised content only serve to emphasise how badly copyright law needs a comprehensive overhaul for the age of digital abundance. Left the way it is, the only people who’ll see any long term benefit will be specialist lawyers to media moguls, and most of them are currently busy making sure we have no idea what’s being decided in the ACTA treaty

Asimov estate authorizes new I, Robot sequel trilogy

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

Isaac Asimov's second Foundation in paperbackPerhaps I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t seen news of this in the places I’d most have suspected to see it – apparently the estate of the late Isaac Asimov have given the go-ahead to a new sequel trilogy of books in the I, Robot canon, to be authored by Mickey Zucker Reichert [via SlashDot; image by ToastyKen].

Renai LeMay (author of the post linked to above) is pretty incensed by the idea:

Firstly, who the hell is Mickey Zucker Reichert? I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy novels for the past three decades and I’ve never heard her name mentioned. To think that a low-profile author could do justice to some of the best-loved work by one of science fiction’s grand masters is simply preposterous.

Secondly, these books are absolute classics of the genre and stand on their own. As some of the first fiction to explore the possible ethical implications of relationships between robots and humans, they should be left on their own as a signpost in the genre. They should not be followed up and continued. Isaac Asimoc died forty years after they were first written. If he had wanted to follow them up, he would have. The author’s intentions need to be respected here.

This is one of the most ridiculous attempts I have yet seen in the speculative fiction genre to cash in on some of a dead author’s most famous work.

That’s some masterly bluster right there; I could almost hear the spit hitting my monitor. I’ve seen Reichert’s name about the place; while I’ve never read her stuff, she’s hardly an unknown. And as LeMay’s commenters point out, this is hardly the first time a similar posthumous cash-in move has been made on a popular science fiction franchise… hell, it’s not even the first time it’ll have happened to Asimov’s material. LeMay’s distress is understandable, but more than a little overstated, perhaps.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for other-author sequels. I thought the recent Dune additions were shamefully bad… but then they seem to sell rather well, so that opinion is evidently far from universal. But is it really that big a deal? Should we be defensive of the literary legacies of our favourite late authors on their behalf, or should we shrug off copyright exploitation for the inevitability that it is, and wait for reviews from sources we trust to determine whether to invest our time and money in the end result? Do bad sequels inevitably and irreversibly poison the original work, somehow?

A connected (and somewhat more contentious issue) is whether Asimov’s estate should be allowed to exploit his work in this manner. It’s one thing for his family to receive money from work Asimov did himself, but to receive money for work by someone else based around the ideas and characters he created is something rather different. You could look at it as something similar to commissioning (presumably) high-quality fan-fic on a profit-share basis, perhaps – completely legal, certainly, but a llittle more fuzzy from an ethical angle.

Any Asimov addicts in the audience? Will you be buying or boycotting Reichert’s robot books when they get published?

The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering

C Sven Johnson @ 30-09-2009

Sven Johnson reports back from the Future Imperfect once again. This time the IP boot is on the other foot, as a keen gamer casts a copyrighted GM crop in an extremely unfavourable light

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson


I suppose I don’t need to ask how many of you have succumbed to the latest “farm game” revival craze. If you’re reading this column you’re almost certainly playing Genetic Seed, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of post-aquapocalyptic, real-time strategy MMOs; this one the obvious offspring of such classics as Food Risk and Germplasm II. However, if you’ve somehow remained oblivious and don’t want to google for an explanation, think of it as the cross-pollinated spawn of a scorched-earth Spore and one of those open source gene-splicing applications… only instead of critters, you play God with the plant life. The better your clan’s food, the stronger its fighters, the bouncier the babes, and so on. Continue reading “The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering”

How to download whole books from Google

Paul Raven @ 11-09-2009

Just in case it isn’t obvious: the following is not an incitement to (or endorsement of) copyright infringement; I have decided to publish this link because I know a number of readers here are interested in the legal and commercial future of books in a digital age (as am I), and because the Author’s Guild settlement is a current topic on which it has bearing… and because few things give me more satisfaction than pointing out that Everything Can And Will Be Hacked.

To reiterate: this link is for information purposes only, folks.

How to download full books from Google Books and save them as PDF files

Who owns culture? J D Salinger, J K Rowling and the line between derivation and infringement

Paul Raven @ 07-08-2009

The bookworms among you may have caught the news last month about J D Salinger’s successful lawsuit against a writer who planned to publish an unofficial sequel to the cult classic The Catcher In The Rye. It’s a complex situation; while I’ve a certain sympathy with Salinger not wanting people messing with his creations, the ruling actually flies in the face of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, as TechDirt pointed out:

It’s difficult to see any reasonable justification for this ruling. Much of the ruling goes through the four factors of fair use, focusing a lot on why the new work is not a parody […] This misses the larger point: the work is entirely new. It’s not directly copying any actual expression. The real problem here is the idea that only “parody” can be considered fair use in these situations. There’s simply no reasonable logic to support that.

The rest of the discussion on the four factors fair use test is rather troubling. Most specifically, the judge’s analysis of the third prong, concerning “the amount of the copyrighted work” being used seems to go to great lengths to explain how the new book uses a great deal from the old book, but bases this on similarities between the way the character acts, not any actual copying of expression (other than the odd word or phrase, which would certainly seem to be minimal actual copying). Similarity (on purpose) is not copying. Stunningly, the judge even points out that the stories have similar arcs (which isn’t surprising), but to claim that because of a similar story arc there’s infringement is incredibly troubling for pretty much any writer.

Indeed – I raised a similar point in the wake of the latest plagiarism lawsuit against J K Rowling, and now it seems that the Fair Use Project and the American Library Association have filed an amicus brief expressing their concerns about the precedent being set. It’s interesting to compare the two cases, because that makes it clear that the law tends to side with the more successful or high-profile creator: Rowling’s lawyers have successfully (and quite rightfully) batted away claims from other writers that general story or character similarities make the Harry Potter series infringing works, but Salinger has prevented publication of a story that he feels infringes on his prior creations. Salinger’s case has a unique flaw (at least to my eyes) in that he has steadfastly refused to publish anything at all for quite some time. If he has no intent to write his own sequels to Catcher, how is the other writer robbing him by doing so?

Of course, there’s always the issue that cash-in works designed to exploit an established fan-base tend to be crap (and apparently reviews of the putative Catcher sequel suggest that it wasn’t much cop), but is that any reason to use the law to prevent their creation? For example, I’m pretty appalled by the travesty that Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson have made of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, but I’d never suggest that they should be legally prevented from doing so.

I guess the question here is: does the publication ban showcase the law protecting Salinger’s ability to make money from his own work, or the law protecting his feelings about the work of others? Because I’m pretty sure the latter is not what the law is supposed to do, and it sets a bad precedent for any of us who aspire to make an income from our own creative output.

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