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.