American Culture

The future (of science fiction writing) ain’t what it used to be

By Martin Bosworth

Over the weekend there was an interesting flap in literary circles–the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) went insane with copyright infringement notices against Scribd.com, an online document-hosting service, for hosting content that SFWA vice-president Andrew Burt insisted was violating the rights of the authors. Unfortunately, as is often the case in these blunderbuss copyright-takedown attacks, a lot of completely legitimate work got taken down under threat of violating the Digital Millenium Copyright Act–including the works of Cory Doctorow, who openly supports free downloading of his work. You can read Cory’s angry response here.

Science-fiction author Jerry Pournelle fired back at Doctorow in a series of responses that basically boiled down to “You’re taking food out of my baby mamma’s my mouth!” The SFWA has agreed to stop its e-piracy campaign and review the list of works posted on Scribd in light of the complaints from Doctorow and other authors who were inadvertently harmed by the move.

There are two things I want to address about this.

First, this sort of carpet-bombing copyright attack is the exact same sort of thing Viacom did to YouTube–sending out threatening DMCA takedown notices based in generally inaccurate understanding of copyright law, and ending up removing tons of legitimate, non-infringing content as well. One could also make the argument that it’s similar to LiveJournal’s own en masse takedown of many communities and LJs due to (often mistaken) accusations of pedophilic content. But this is always what happens when the fear of legal liability wrought by a terrible law like the DMCA takes hold. It stifles free expression, harms the work and livelihood of innocent people, and actually makes it harder to legitimately protect copyright–lack of real understanding of the law either gets these cases tossed out of court or ended in paying agreements between the content creator and the aggrieved party, which instills the idea that it’s okay to get away with this as long as you give the media money machine its cut. Lawrence Lessig has written exhaustively and definitively on the failures of modern copyright law and intellectual property hegemony–read this as a brief example–and I strongly recommend to anyone who thinks this is a simple issue to read his works. It’s anything but. I also strongly recommend visiting the Electronic Frontier Foundation and studying their regular efforts to challenge the DMCA and explore its many abusive ramifications.

Second, I am reminded of my first encounter with the SFWA in the form of this insanely Luddite-esque rant by the organization’s former VP, Howard Hendrix. As I’m not an SF writer, I had no idea the organization existed, but if these kinds of attitudes are what is prevalent among the members it claims to represent, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to join–and the copyright takedown attack is another example of that. Of ALL people, in ALL groups, you would think science fiction writers would be among the first to jump on the train of new technology and new ideas–new ways of sharing content. And I’m sure that’s still very much the case, judging by the heated responses to Hendrix’s screed in the comments. But like any group with such a vast potential membership as sci-fi writers, you’ll find more than your share of right-wing reactionaries and retarded middle-aged adolescents, and that seems to be infecting the SFWA to an alarming degree.

It’s depressing to see that even in a field like SF writing–which is all about imagining the possible, the exploration of the new frontier, and the usage of a fantastic setting as a metaphor to explore real-world issues–that the all-too-real banality of legal liability has caused this kind of backlash, and provided an already beleaguered organization with more bad publicity.

7 replies »

  1. I laughed about 16 times as I read this, Martin – I represent the other end of the spectrum, the “mid-list” writers of “literary fiction” who get all worked up because people don’t read our work even when we give it away for free (which happens plenty, trust me).

    For these basement-dwelling-living-with-mom types to get so exercised over their “work” being READ – BTW, how many Orson Scott Cards are there among those? Very few, I’m guessing – is, to me, a freaking joke. Especially, as you say, given the idea that SF writers would seem to be the most likely group to support tech and its possibilities for writers. And to walk into the DMCA trap? They’re like those extra guys always sent on teleportings in “Star Trek” episodes – you know, the ones who ALWAYS GET OBLITERATED….

    I just responded to a former student (and fellow writer) who accused me of giving too much of my work away by blogging as I do – I explained to him the efficacy of building audience. Now these guys want to REDUCE audience?

    I’ve got to stop – I keep falling off my chair laughing at these bone heads….

  2. Actually, I wouldn’t expect this group to be tech-forward at all. I think back to how the SF establishment received the cyberpunks, and that alone made clear to me how very traditional they really are at heart. Besides, so much of the work that defined SF pre-cyberpunk was pretty reactionary in a lot of ways.

    Funny? Maybe. Ridiculous? Sure. But surprising? Not so much….

  3. As an aspiring SF writer myself, I’ve been thinking of releasing my first story on my own website free, for two reasons: a) to build an audience and b) so I don’t have to go through the stress of submitting it to an “official” publication. Does this mean I can expect to be served with a cease and desist order by the SFWA for self-publishing my own work?

    Oh, that’s right – only if I refer to the name of a current or former member of the SFWA and give proper credit in the process.

    To think, I once thought about trying to join these twits.

  4. Jim,

    Your Star Trek reference had me laughing out loud for quite a while. Excellent. These guys are total redshirts if ever I saw one.

    Sam,

    My friend Kevin said much the same thing, actually. It’s been such a long time since I read any SF in prose or paid attention to the SF community that I forgot how much of it was contaminated with pasty power-fetish nerds regurgitating Heinlein, Rand, or Tom Clancy. I remember the virulently negative reaction from “hard” SF factions to the cyberpunks–and I’m sure those fights go on to this very day, long since the vanishing point of relevance.

    Brian,

    You should totally do it. You’ll stand a much better chance of being noticed now than at any time in the past. I think that’s what has the old guard’s collective panties in a twist–deep down, they’re resentful that technology is enabling new writers to be noticed faster and not having to go through the onerous process that they did.

  5. Please don’t judge us all based on our two vice presidents that you’ve encountered. We’re quite a varied group that has had our general membership overshadowed by a few reactionaries of late. Some of us hold more moderate positions 🙂

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