Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretches

In 2008 I hope to see fewer bizarre SF copyright and text-piracy disputes. One particularly odd case involved blatant plagiarism of the late David Gemmell's 1993 novel Dark Prince. An unknown American author promoted her debut fantasy – to be published by a vanity press – by putting the prologue online. Fans quickly recognized this as Gemmell's opening chapter, virtually word for word. Character names were changed, but someone carelessly let one original name slip through.

Surprisingly, the wannabe author was in fact a victim. After some feeble protests that the work was all hers, she admitted that she'd paid serious money to the elusive Edinburgh-based literary agent Christopher Hill (exposed as a scammer in The Guardian and elsewhere), who ghost-wrote part of her novel – presumably with a copy of Dark Prince propped up beside his keyboard. It's definitely safest to write your own books.

Many SF authors not only do this but woo readers by giving away free samples online. Such behaviour was denounced in 2007 by a vice-president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA, not SFFWA), who felt this hi-tech promotion was unfair competition for literary dinosaurs like himself. According to him, it degraded "the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch." This led to the declaration of a new literary holiday, International Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch Day, which consenting authors celebrated by offering free reads on their websites. Perhaps we'll do it again in 2008.

One strong enthusiast for such giveaways is Cory Doctorow of the popular blog BoingBoing.net, who distributes entire novels under Creative Commons licenses and is sure these freebies boost his printed-book sales. Another 2007 copyright row began with Cory's wrath when a legitimately posted copy of a novel by himself was deleted after legal threats by (hello again!) SFWA.

What happened was that the SFWA ePiracy Committee, monitors of online naughtiness, had decided to target Scribd.com. Scribd is a site that lets users share text documents, like Flickr for photos and YouTube for video. As you might suspect, a lot of pirated material appeared there – my own search revealed that you could (then if not now) download all the Harry Potter novels, and I'm fairly sure J K Rowling wasn't consulted. SFWA found many illicit copies of work by Isaac Asimov.

When polite requests didn't work, Andrew Burt of the ePiracy Committee hit Scribd with what was supposedly a formal takedown notice under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It wasn't in the proper legal format, but never mind: Scribd nervously removed every document complained about. Unfortunately SFWA's list of offending uploads was based on a simple – not to say brain-dead – text search for "Asimov", and legitimate stuff got deleted too: digital magazines, reviews, recommended reading lists, Cory Doctorow's novel ...

Controversy raged in various weblogs, and SFWA decided to shut down the whole ePiracy Committee for a rethink, rather than risk further outbreaks of such bad publicity.

Then Andrew Burt, saw his chance to strike back – which is where I come in. Ursula Le Guin, bless her, had sent me a funny little piece about genre phobia for the Ansible newsletter; you can read it at news.ansible.co.uk/a240.html. Cory liked it too, and quoted the whole thing on BoingBoing, reckoning it was short enough for this to count as fair use. Ursula Le Guin was unhappy, though; imagine the glee of Andrew Burt as he forwarded a complaint about copyright infringement to the pixel-stained nemesis of the ePiracy Committee ... This micro-controversy all ended in more or less graceful apologies, but I still feel vaguely responsible.

But the silliest of the year's disputes was between the 2012 London Olympics organisers and Robert Ronson, author of a children's SF novel set at the event and called Olympic Mind Games. You can't do that, said the shocked committee. Thanks to various Acts of Parliament, the O-word is protected and so is any use of "London 2012", or indeed "2012" alone. (That's going to be fun for calendar publishers, isn't it?) Ronson ignored this, and the fusspots wisely decided not to go to court.

Now, speaking as the author of several stories about eye-wrenching fractal images that crash the human brain, I wonder whether I can sue the 2012 Olympics mob for plagiarism. Just look at their logo. But not too hard, nor for too long.

David Langford wishes readers a happy Ian Fleming's Centenary Year. Shaken, not stirred.

Later: Andrew Burt's side of the story appears here.