SFWA Thinks Writers That Support e-Books are Strike-Breaking Scabs

by Branko Collin In a recent Mobileread article that appears to generate plenty of heat itself, regular contributor Bob Russell suggests that Friction is why e-books adoption is slow. Friction occurs when publishers and distributors put in all kinds of small hindrances to the book-buying process that viewed separately may make good sense, but that added up form an unsurmountable block to members of the buying public. Russell borrows the term friction from Michal Hyatt, President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, [who] has written in his blog about reducing friction as one way for bookstores to increase their sales, and sees it equally applicable to e-book merchants. Now Chris Meadows reports that distributing e-books can get you in conflict with the law: Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) has filed a so-called DMCA take-down notice againstdocument sharing site Scribd for distributing e-books without the required permission. Thing is, some of the books that the SFWA wants taken down are distributed with the permission of the copyright holders.As a result, the SFWA take-down notice serves not only to protect the interests of authors whose copyrights have been infringed, but also as a threat to those, authors and site owners alike, who wish to distribute e-books for free. The DMCA is an American law that concerns itself with copyright in the digital age. Teleblog readers may know the DMCA from its anti-circumvention clause; if you can no longer read an e-book, for instance because the merchant who sold you the key to its lock went bankrupt, it is a crime in the US to pick the lock, even though the e-book is your property. It also has a provision that ever so kindly “protects” internet providers from legal action if they take down a website after being notified of infringement. The implications of the SFWA’s bully tactics are enormous. Sitescan easily get scared into thinking that publishing e-books equals legal action somewhere down the line; they have to make a decision whether that threat is worth it. Scared merchants do not make for a frictionless experience. Chris Meadows feels that the SFWA’s action was an honest mistake; I have my doubts.A 2006 study of University of California scientists found that about a third of all DMCA take-down notices are illegal. It would therefore appear that those who abuse the DMCA do not perform the due diligence they presumably expect from those they attack. That the DMCA allows this abuse without giving the victims much legal recourse makes it a perfect bullying instrument. The SFWA’s careless treatment of the copyrights of for instance Cory Doctorow, who allows some of his works to be distributed via Scribd but whose works were nonetheless included in the take-down notice, shows an ambiguous attitude towards its members’ copyrights. On the one hand the rights of authors who are docile toeers of the party line are to be respected; on the other hand the rights of authors who think that their copyrights allow them to distribute their works the way they see fit are to be trampled on. A telling incident that allows us some insight in how the executive folks at the SFWA think took place earlier this year when then vice-president Howard Hendrix took aim at writers who used their copyrights to distribute gratis e-books as loss leaders. According to Hendrix these writers were like scabs, strike-breakers. The term assumes a boss-subordinate relationship, and the most recent SFWA action seems to confirm that this opinion of its members is held institution-wide.

DMCA abuse is not the sole prerogative of the SFWA; expect plenty of other middlemen and parasites to use the law to hinder the distribution and therefore acceptance of e-books. This is a classic example of what happens when bad law is not stopped, or only stopped piecemeal — and as a result friends of the e-book are caught in the cross-fire.