Ellison v. AOL

Jason Schultz discusses the copyright infringement lawsuit Harlan Ellison has against AOL, which I found via BoingBoing as we all find so many things. It’s an interesting post. Ellison was for a very long time my favorite writer. I still have more books by him than other single author, I was in the Harlan Ellison Record Collection for a number of years, I have tapes and albums of him reading his work. As I read about this suit, I am just filled with the most overwhelming disappointment in the man.

Elsewhere and elsewhen I remember reading that he is out of pocket at least $300K in this windmill tilt, which is just absurd. I understand that he didn’t like that some dumbshit posted stories of his to Usenet. However, it’s arguable whether that act incurred any damage at all, and certainly it was not within orders of magnitude of that dollar amount. Were these stories even in print at the time? I think the worse risk to him is diminishing the value his name carries as a writer with his weak stories of the recent past. I recently read the issue of F&SF with his “Ask Not For Whom The Lettuce Wilts.” That story would have been bounced out of the slush pile if it came from an unknown writer. It stunk up the train where I was reading it. That’s the danger to his career, not these copyright infringements. They are real and I’m sure painful to him, but they are not things that cause him to lose cash out of his pocket. It is possible that they do the opposite, by getting his good work out in front of young people who have either never heard of him or know him only by stories like the above. If all the energy he spent on this lawsuit went into work, he’d still have his money and maybe we’d have The Last Dangerous Visions published. At the least, we as readers would have more better work and he’d have made money insteading of spending it on lawyers.

The lawsuit seems to turn on the fact that someone (not him) called up AOL and asked to have those stories removed and it didn’t happen fast enough or at all (not sure which.) I can say that I don’t particularly like the notion of the ISPs having hair triggers to remove possible infringements because of lawsuits like this. They are the wire, not the infringer. I want them to provide a connection and let us push across the bits we choose. Imagine if the telephone company was on the hook (no pun intended) for libel committed over the phone. Do you want them monitoring your calls and deciding when the line is crossed? I really don’t see why he is suing AOL at all. He already sued the guy who did it and settled it out of court years ago. As far as I can see, justice was served at that point. A person committed an infringement of Ellison’s copyright; Ellison tracked him down and the guy made restitution. To continue the fight beyond that is why I am disappointed. Part of the reason I liked the guy is because he wrote cautionary tales warning of the dangers of strong authorities that controlled the actions of individuals in stories like “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent Harlequin’, said the Ticktock Man”. Now that he is fighting to have centralized authorities exert more control over individuals, it makes me sad.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father.

One thought on “Ellison v. AOL”

  1. >I can say that I don’t particularly like the notion of the ISPs having hair triggers to remove possible infringements because of lawsuits like this. They are the wire, not the infringer.

    Actually in this case, copies of ellison’s work were stored on aol usenet archive servers. Since AOL was storing it on their servers, and distributing it (their users were downloading the books from the archives) AOL is as guilty as a pimply faced 15 year old kid running kazaa and sharing e-books. They downloaded it from usenet, stored it, and gave copies to whomever wanted them. The only issue I see, is how to figure out exactly how much AOL owes mr. ellison.

    AOL should screen the content of what they store and distribute for copyrighted materials. Otherwise they are distributing copies of protected work illegally and violating copyright. If they don’t like it, or can’t screen it, they shouldn’t run usenet archive servers.

    >He already sued the guy who did it and settled it out of court years ago. As far as I can see, justice was served at that point.

    He sued the guy that posted his stuff to usenet. AOL chose to archive the stuff and keep distributing it. It’s a new case. Following your logic, since the RIAA sued a 13 year old girl for distributing madonna’s latest hit on kazaa, someone who downloaded it from her, and is sharing to others cannot be sued.

    This couldn’t be further from the truth or letter of the law. Each time you give a way a copy of something which you do not own the copyright on, you are guilty of one count of copyright infringement. It doesn’t matter where you got it.

    If you download something and distribute it, you are guilty of distributing the work illegally. If someone downloads it from you, and distributes the work again, they are guilty of the same infringement, and can be taken to court too.

    I can’t believe people don’t “get it” yet, what copyright means. It’s all in the name, copy right. If you don’t have the copy right, you don’t have the right to make copies and give or sell them to people. You have the copyright if you sent work into the copyright office with a form, paid some money, and recieved a certificate back. If you didn’t do this, and you didn’t create the work yourself, you don’t have the copyright and are guilty of infringement if you make a copy, and give it to your mother, brother, cat, someone you don’t know over internet, on paper, on a tape, in a computer file, it doesn’t matter.

    Bottom line is creative people need to make a living. If they wanted to give away all their work for free, they’d post it on the internet with a copyleft notice and tell you so. Barring that, you are stealing from them whenever you let someone download it from you.

    Do you feel that AOL would be guilty if they were selling the book for 12.99 a download and not paying mr. Ellison?

    It’s the exact same thing, only AOL isn’t making money. That fact does not lessen the infringement, or the damage to mr. ellison one bit.

    I think you are damning mr. ellison with flawed logic. Look into what copyright is, what it means, and do some reading at copyright.gov about what a copyright is, and you will see why mr. ellison, his publisher, and any creative person applies for copyright.

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