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01/12/2004 Archived Entry: "A new twist on piracy"

I GOT A SHOCK LAST NIGHT. A whole gaggle of my print-only articles (or so I and my and my publisher thought!) turned up on the Internet without my knowledge.

Well, what am I bitching about? This is the Internet. It happens. This was different, though. This time the piracy wasn't done by some slope-foreheaded cretin working out of his clutter-strewn back bedroom. It wasn't done by some low-budget publication desperate to make its reputation off the brains of the unwilling. It wasn't even done by some libertarian who'd raised "because I can get away with it" to a philosophic principle.

It was done by one of the biggest publishing companies in the U.S. -- a company whose many famous-name imprints wouldn't, under any other circumstances, think of touching work like mine. And it was done on a large, large, top-of-the-Google-listings scale. My articles were only a nit. The entire magazine in which they'd appeared was reproduced, issue after issue of it, right down to the letters to the editor. Hundreds of other magazines, as well.

When I queried my own publisher, he was more upset than I. After all, it was only a handful of articles for me, but his whole livelihood was being given away. (And you can forget the netly mantra that free exposure will lead to paid subscriptions. Partial exposure, maybe. But what people know they can get for free they won't and don't pay for. Would you?)

Turns out, though, that without knowing it, my publisher might have given "permission" for this. His bookkeeper has been getting a small annual check from Mega Publishing Corp. They've never been able to find out what it was for, not even when they've called Mega Corp to ask. But they've cashed it ... and that might be all it took to put themselves in this position.

But that's not the whole story -- and Mega Corp surely knows it. Because even if such a "contract" could hold up in court or private arbitration, my publisher would be accidentally selling what he has no right to sell. Magazines rarely buy all rights to articles written by freelancers. They may buy first North American serial rights or one-time reprint rights or Internet archive rights or some other limited or combined rights. The authors retain ownership of all other rights. Since that's standard throughout the publishing business, Mega Corp is undoubtedly aware that it's republishing the work of thousands of individual authors which the "seller" simply doesn't own and can't legally re-sell.

Life on the net just gets weirder and weirder. Most writers live at the economic edge, anyway, and this sort of stuff is killing us. And it's killing the publishers on whom we depend. And it's not killing us in the legitimate ways that "building a better mousetrap" or coming up with a more clever marketing strategy have always enabled one business, or one technology, or one entire industry, to triumph over another. It's killing us because technology + a total lack of ethics is being allowed to trump technology + honorable business practices. The decent are being destroyed by the unprincipled.

If I met a young person today who was thinking of writing for a living, I'd urge him absolutely to go into some other field.

Posted by Claire @ 08:08 AM CST

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