Harlan Ellison mad as hell, not going to take it any more.
March 8, 2001 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Harlan Ellison mad as hell, not going to take it any more. Starts a fund to Kick Internet Piracy. "WHAT WE’RE LOOKING AT IS THE DEATH OF THE PROFESSIONAL WRITER!"
posted by Twang (48 comments total)
Why on earth is he upset? Writers can just make up the extra money by doing book tours.
posted by lileks at 9:07 AM on March 8, 2001

I'm sure he'd be really pissed if somebody were to mirror his essay to some server that hadn't used up all its bandwidth.
posted by harmful at 9:22 AM on March 8, 2001

Poor Harlan. For the last twenty years, he's pretty much just made a living out of being pissed off. He bitches about movies, then compiles his rants and publishes them. He bitches about life, then compiles those rants and publishes them. He blows the dust of his old screenplays and publishes them. He sues television networks, so he can take credit for 'Future Cop'... wooo... And, of course, he re-publishes all the stuff he wrote when he was actually a writer. Apart from 'Angry Candy', I'm not sure he's done much other than recylce and whine. He should start a blog of his own, take some Xanex and just relax, buddy.
posted by Perigee at 9:27 AM on March 8, 2001

Ellison writes (screams, really):


Oh goodie! Then we'll bring back the era of amateurs. You know, the ones that do it for the love of it. :) I can hardly wait.

Why do so many people think that the rest of the world carries the obligation to give them a job, and beyond that in *one specific profession*?

He sounds like a disgruntled buggy-whip manufacturer...

Don't worry, writers will still be paid, sheesh. Just not quite as often as they would like, really.

The key is that they'll have to make sure they get paid *up front* as much as they think their work is worth, because continuing residuals are probably not going to be coming. Their only hope is to hold their work hostage and see how much the world wants to pay them in order to release it for the first time.

It'll be a different world, but it'll be okay. He won't starve.
posted by beth at 9:42 AM on March 8, 2001

503 Error : Traffic Level Exceeded
This web site has exceeded its traffic allowance
Please try visiting this site again again at a lower traffic period, and/or contact the site maintainers and suggest that they increase their traffic threshold.

Forget the death of the professional writer. Who killed the professional IT dude at speculations.com?
posted by darren at 9:58 AM on March 8, 2001

Here is a mirror of the original.
posted by xiffix at 10:27 AM on March 8, 2001

Really, if he's going to be appreciated online, he should learn not to shout. Basic netiquette, Harlan.
posted by holgate at 10:35 AM on March 8, 2001

I can't believe people honestly belive they have any say over someone else's work. Until you have permission to use it, it is not yours.

Information wants to be free, effort demands to be rewarded.
posted by Mick at 10:39 AM on March 8, 2001

I had had, many years ago, a collect call from Harlan, comnplaing about some anthology Idid that used a piece he had written. I asked a sci fi guy I knew about him and was told that he was basically very lonely and spent a good deal of time calling up anyone and everyone at all odd hours just to complain and to bitch...ah, well. Now there is prozac
posted by Postroad at 10:51 AM on March 8, 2001

Harlan's certifiable, but his tirades and petty feuds are legendary in science fiction and comics fandom. I can't think of a worse person to represent the cause of writers in the Napster era.
posted by rcade at 10:55 AM on March 8, 2001

If you reprinted his work and didn't pay him, he had every right to be upset. And if you charged for the anthology, he had every right to sue.
posted by lileks at 10:57 AM on March 8, 2001

I do wish he would have hit capslock. Ah well, I've always loved Harlan, and I'll stick with him on this one. He shouts and gets belligerent because he knows what works. He's always been willing to put his money and his effort where his mouth is--for that he's always been a hero of mine.

I have to shake my head at folks that would post the entirety of someone else's creative work for the sole reason of getting it for free. I just don't get it. Every argument I've heard so far sounds like sheer rationalization springing from a sense of entitlement.

We are not entitled to someone else's creative output. If they offer it for free, that's fine--but it's also a good indicator that they aren't doing it for a living. The world is a better, richer place because people can make a living doing art. I want creative people to be able to support themselves on their art, because then we can see more of it. So if I love it, I pay.
posted by frykitty at 11:01 AM on March 8, 2001

a) I don't think he was shouting, this was obviously some kind of scan job
b) unlike most sf authors, Ellison grew up on the mean streets of the big city: he made his first big splash by going undercover in a teenage gang (as a 20-year-old), he is not one to sit down and take some punk posting his stuff to newsgroups or gnutella;
c) he's really a very nice man in person, the gruffness is all a persona. He and Asimov -- the best of friends in real life -- had an act going where they'd yell at each other across convention halls "You hack! You haven't had an original idea in 20 years!" Very entertaining, although I suppose even more so if you didn't know in advance that it was meant as such.
d) Harlan shouldn't be so upset. He can always go work in TV again. We all know how much he loves working in TV. He's only quit permanently about twelve times.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 AM on March 8, 2001

Suing AOL for unleashing Gnutella is pretty damn radical.

It is eminently clear that copyright holders are going to need to use technology self-help to eradicate pirating, much the way DirectTV found a way to burn out the innards of DirectTV receivers using pirate cards to steal programming.

If even 5% of all files purporting to be copyrighted media were in fact viruses which fried your hard-drive upon launch or preview, this problem would go away faster than any lawsuit.

posted by MattD at 11:08 AM on March 8, 2001

Anyone who wants to read his work for free can just go to the library. He's a pretty popular writer, so even bad libraries probably have his stuff. The people who put this stuff online are his biggest fans. They're probably doing him a favor by getting his writing out there.

That said, I think posting other people's work online is pretty sketchy, and refusing to take it down when asked is abominable.
posted by electro at 11:19 AM on March 8, 2001

I think this case pushes things a bit. It sounds like RemarQ Communties cooperated fully with Ellison's request and that some sort of settlement was reached with the pirate, who posted under his real email account. Going after AOL in regards to Gnutella is novel; I wonder if the recording undsutry will do the same.
posted by tranquileye at 11:20 AM on March 8, 2001

I hate that recording undsutry.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:21 PM on March 8, 2001

Moguls like Puffy Combs definitely put the un- in undustry.
posted by OneBallJay at 12:26 PM on March 8, 2001

I don't know if the music industry will go after AOL. After all, they are part of the music industry. (Warner Records).
posted by benjh at 1:53 PM on March 8, 2001

AOL's in the clear on this because Congress passed a law that ISPs are not responsible for that which is posted by their clients.

Ellison has made a career out of being an "angry young man" -- even when he stopped being young. And his credentials regarding getting pissed about others abusing property rights are just a bit shakey; his credibility suffers badly when you learn about all the stories he has which have been rotting for 25 years because he never got around to doing The Last Dangerous Visions. (An apallingly large number of the authors of the stories purchased for that unpublished volume have now died without ever seeing any royalties, and we are the poorer for not have had the opportunity to read them.) If Ellison really wanted to demonstrate his commitment to intellectual property, he'd get off his butt and publish the thing.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:25 PM on March 8, 2001

Theives will always steal and fans will always buy. This lawsuit is not going to change that.
posted by john at 2:25 PM on March 8, 2001

I have to shake my head at folks that would post the entirety of someone else's creative work for the sole reason of getting it for free. I just don't get it.

I have to shake my head at folks who would hold the modern digital information system hostage to the limits of the old paper one for the sole reason of propping up the old way to get people paid. I just don't get it. It's 2001, and we have computers everywhere - why won't you let us use them?

posted by Mars Saxman at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2001

You can hunt with guns. You can protect your property. You can have fun target shooting. You can hold up a liquor store.

The fact that the last one will get you arrested doesn't prevent you from doing the rest.

I'm terribly sorry if basic ethics prevent your enjoyment of your computer. I'm having a blast with mine, thank you.
posted by frykitty at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2001

I'm terribly sorry if basic ethics prevent your enjoyment of your computer.

If there are ethics involved in this situation at all, they are certainly not basic. Copyright law is a practical solution to a practical problem and nothing more. The technology around which its idea was based had limitations which do not apply to computers. Copyright law is thus an awkward, uncomfortable fit to our modern situation - that is the reason we are discussing this at all.

What are we going to do about it? We can forge on as though nothing has changed, and live with the fact that we can't make the most of our new technology - or we can chuck the old system, come up with new practical solutions to our modern-day problems, and move on into a digital future where data copying is as fundamental an activity as reading.

It shouldn't be hard to figure out which one I prefer.

posted by Mars Saxman at 3:20 PM on March 8, 2001

Basic as in: I'm a carpenter, and I make a chair. You want the chair. You pay for it.

Surely we can use this wonderful technology so carpenters everywhere can continue to ply their trade exclusively, and not have to take a desk job while making chairs for free on the side.
posted by frykitty at 3:28 PM on March 8, 2001

frykitty: I don't think chairs are copyrighted. (maybe some are patented. But that means you aren't allowed to sell a copy of the chair. Patents are irrelevant for home experimenters.)
Also, it is impossible to reproduce an exact duplicate of this chair with a minimal expenditure of energ ;)

The only way to prevent "data copying" would be to build checks into the hardware to prevent it. I certainly do not want that. This is the cause of the DeCSS dispute. If I buy some data, say, on a cd, I have the right to do whatever I want with it, say put it on my portable mp3 player.

I wouldn't buy any hardware that wouldn't allow me to do that. (Well, unless I could find plans to fix it on the net :))

posted by sonofsamiam at 3:34 PM on March 8, 2001

Here's a recommendation: a science fiction novel called NOIR, by K. W. Jeter. A brilliantly eccentric book, which among other things passionately argues in favor of the death penalty for copyright violation. The logic is really just a fictional extrapolation of what Harlan Ellison is arguing in his lawsuit. I wouldn't say I agree with Ellison and Jeter, but it is thought-provoking, especially if you find yourself of two minds (as I do) about the issue.
posted by Rebis at 3:36 PM on March 8, 2001

Ooops, that "energ-wink" is supposed to be "energy-wink."
posted by sonofsamiam at 3:39 PM on March 8, 2001

I have to agree I wouldn't want hardware preventing me from copying anything. What irritates me is that it would even be necessary.

As a humanist, I guess I just expect better from people. That's why the very basic carpenter analogy. It isn't about what people can do, it's about being responsible in how we act toward other human beings.

I know, a hopeless battle.
posted by frykitty at 3:39 PM on March 8, 2001

Here's a recommendation: a science fiction novel called NOIR, by K. W. Jeter.

Yeah, that's an excellent book; for anyone who wants to read a copy, I've scanned the entire thing and put it online here.
posted by webmutant at 3:59 PM on March 8, 2001

If there are ethics involved in this situation at all, they are certainly not basic. Copyright law is a practical solution to a practical problem and nothing more.

Well, sure, in same sense that all laws are practical solutions to a practial problem, said problem being that there are people who will do whatever they can get away with unless there are immediate and obvious personal consequences to their actions beyond a guilty conscience.
posted by kindall at 4:02 PM on March 8, 2001

frykitty: your analogy is indeed very basic, but it is unfortunately so basic that it misses the point. We're not talking about a situation in which I'm taking the carpenter's chair without paying him for it. We're talking about a situation in which the carpenter's made the chair, I've bought it, taken it home, and run it through the handy matter duplicator out in my garage. Now what? Why should I pay the carpenter again, when it was my matter duplicator that did all the work, and I'm going to be the one paying for the power it used? The carpenter already got paid for the work they did.

The analogy does not hold up because the digital world offers us free instant copying of anything in a way so natural and complete that there is no parallel in the non-digital world. This is why the idea of copyright is awkward and strange when applied to digital data. It is not an issue of simple ethics.

Instant, reliable duplication and transmission of data is a task at which computers excel - you could say that is the whole point of their existence. It is something that cannot be done any other way. Expecting people to buy these data-duplicators and not use them is not expecting better of them, it's expecting the absurd.


posted by Mars Saxman at 4:13 PM on March 8, 2001

Lileks: of course I had permission to reprint! Do you for a moment thing a big and reputable publisher is going to allow an editor to use lots of copyrighted things without getting permission? Is complaint to silly to go into here.
posted by Postroad at 4:27 PM on March 8, 2001

Trying to get at an analogy that's a little closer to what's going on...Let's say you have a bakery. And every time someone takes a loaf of bread, whether they pay for it or not, another one springs up in its place. So...this is in some ways a good thing, because people can take a slice as a sample, or give some to their friends, and come back and buy some later. But it's pretty clear that if nobody pays for the bread they take, you're not going to have the money to pay for the oven you used for the original loaf,, or the rent on the bakery, and you don't really have much incentive to try to bake pumpernickel bread or carrot muffins.
On the other hand, I agree that it's kind of impossible to expect people *not* to trade information, even copyrighted information, with each other. If copyright violation becomes more widespread, for better or for worse, I think we're going to see more people who write/sing/paint only as a hobby, because they need a day job to make a living; I think some art that's expensive to produce (albums recorded with a lot of sound effects and post-production, for example) might disappear entirely unless ardent fans offered musicians money up-front to record them.
posted by Jeanne at 5:02 PM on March 8, 2001

rebis: Got a copy of that on my shelf, but haven't gotten around to cracking it open. I have your permission to start readin'?
posted by allaboutgeorge at 6:48 PM on March 8, 2001

(Rebis, very cool to have you here, btw. I've admired your work for a long time.)
posted by rodii at 7:34 PM on March 8, 2001

Why do people assume that artists should happily give their works away to the world?

And why, when an artist tries to get compensated for their work, do people look down at him, make snide comments, and basically refuse to recognize them as artists?

I really am curious. Yeah, Harlan Ellison is a crank, but he's also written some of the only science fiction I think is worth reading. This goes back to the Napster issue. The whole digital replication thing. Really, why is it a bad thing for an artist to be concerned about unauthorized duplication of their work?

What's with this neo-Marxist bullshit purity that the instant someone starts worrying about money, everything about them is completely invalidated? Like the man said, many artists are not rich. They love their work, and they'll do it anyway, but damnit, how are they going to survive if no one pays them for their stories? Why should they bother if all the time and energy invested in their work isn't recognized?

Shakespeare wouldn't have written his plays if he didn't have a financial stake in the Globe Theater. Michaelangelo wouldn't have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for free.

The notion that money is automatically a corrupting or tainting force is immature. Money is a motivation. It's a commonly agreed-upon way of recognizing value. Money can be used for ill, of course, but a well-placed grant can give an artist the time and breathing room to complete their work instead of working at a record store.

Then again, the notion that creative people are pure acolytes of the True Vision Of Serving Humanity is complete bullshit as well.

There's also the issue of quality control. Who's to say that someone retyping a book into HTML won't make a mistake? MP3s sound a lot crappier than CDs. And movies are made for 40-foot high screens, not for postage-stamped sized digitalizations. An artist has to be constantly vigilant to make sure that their work is not altered or damaged.

And once again, information theory is horseshit. It's like looking at a statue and seeing only atoms. The atoms didn't magically align themselves into statue form, you know.

It's time to grow up and recognize that compensating artists for their work encourages them to create more work that you will enjoy, because an artist can't create if he can't eat and doesn't have a roof over his head. By stealing their work, you become a baby in a highchair, face smeared with whatever food your parents gave you, and you're screaming at the top of your lungs for MORE, MORE, MORE. But your gluttony is never sated, and your parents will run out of food someday, and they can't get more because you're screaming too loud, but all you care about is MORE, MORE, MORE.
posted by solistrato at 9:03 PM on March 8, 2001

Preach on, brother Solistrato.
posted by kindall at 9:29 PM on March 8, 2001

It's time to grow up and recognize that compensating artists for their work encourages them to create more work that you will enjoy, because an artist can't create if he can't eat and doesn't have a roof over his head.

I don't know any artists who have been left roofless as a result of Napster. Everything I've read indicates that since file sharing became popular, they're doing better than ever.

Why is that happening?

I think it's because file sharing exposes people to more music that they like, inspiring more CD sales from enough people to make up for the sponges who listen and never buy anything. It's certainly true here -- I spent $200 on CDs this past year and nothing the year before, because the only junk I was hearing pre-Napster was the crap on the radio. I listen to Napster, and it introduces me to musicians I'd like to hear more from and musicians I forgot how much I liked.

If file sharing isn't the reason for the industry's banner year, I'm not sure what it else could be. Does anyone believe it was because of all the great groups now performing, like the Backstreet Boys, N Sync, Christine Aguilera and O Town?
posted by rcade at 9:56 PM on March 8, 2001

It could well turn out that Napster is on net beneficial to artists. If this becomes the general perception, more artists and record labels will give permission for their music to be shared. But it is not for Napster (or anyone but the artist or other copyright holder) to make that decision, even if it would be good for them in the long run.
posted by kindall at 10:17 PM on March 8, 2001

We learned that “Shaker” was actually Stephen Robertson, a 40-year-old living with his parents in Red Bluff, California.

LOL Ellison is fascinating, but never a neutral intellect. Like many of his generation, he built his reputation on identifying himself with various causes (e.g., "New Wave," feminism); now I don't think he has any real sense of what he has to offer without the contentiousness. His thinking can be quite archaic, IMHO (sadly, most sf writers are at least as subject to this functional fixedness as any other aging population). Having said that, I must confess that I go back and forth on this issue, too.

Passion carries, but too much bile drowns reason.
posted by rushmc at 10:34 PM on March 8, 2001

But it is not for Napster (or anyone but the artist or other copyright holder) to make that decision, even if it would be good for them in the long run.

If Napster is beneficial, who cares what the artists think? When millions of people break the law, maybe the problem is with the law and not the people.
posted by rcade at 2:26 AM on March 9, 2001

Ellison is shooting himself in the foot. Actually, he's so short-sighted, he'd probably miss. (Ironic, for a guy who writes about the future).

The only people who are putting up with the discomfort involved in reading entire novels on the 'net are those who cannot afford to acquire them elsewhere. Namely, teenage boys who, after having read some of Ellisons stuff online, will then become lifelong fans and spend lots of money on his books when they get older. He shouldn't be suing this poor loser that scanned and posted his stuff, he should be paying him for his trouble. It's called "advertising", Harlan. Relax.
posted by Optamystic at 2:42 AM on March 9, 2001

It's a control issue. Computers make security very difficult to the point that it's more of a delay then protection. People that create IP can either worry about people that steal or count on those that support them.

I feel that people inclined to not support those that make the things they enjoy are few. But no matter what their number they would not likely buy the item in question anyway, because they are probably 40 year old losers that live with their parents.
posted by john at 3:04 AM on March 9, 2001

If Napster is beneficial, who cares what the artists think?

Um, well, the artists, I'd say. It's their stuff. If you want to pass copies around, they might find it flattering and they might not; they might give it their blessing or they might ask that it stop. But they deserve to be asked first and their wishes respected, because the creative works we enjoy copying so much would not exist without them. Eventually I truly believe most of them will come to understand that the Internet is not a threat but an opportunity, but it will take time, and some artists might never get it. In the meanwhile, let's not send a "fuck you" card to people whose work we claim to like, OK?
posted by kindall at 3:48 AM on March 9, 2001

The only "pirated" music on my hard drive is live, rare, and unreleased stuff. I do like these artists. They wouldn't receive any compensation anyway. Most of them are dead.
Anyone who gets in the way of my listening to a 32-bitrate, monophonic recording of Joe Artist from 10 years ago will be crushed like the nematodes they are.

posted by sonofsamiam at 7:57 AM on March 9, 2001

Shakespeare wouldn't have written his plays if he didn't have a financial stake in the Globe Theater. Michaelangelo wouldn't have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for free.

Uhhh, solistrato, not to get in the way of a good rant, but those examples aren't really helpful to your argument, as they indicate two ways that artists can get paid without copyright -- through charging for performances and through commissioned work. Talking about, say, Hemingway or the Carter Family (or, I dunno, Hitchcock) might be more to the point. But the idea of professional, copyright-subsidized artists is a recent one.

And not all musicians are anti-Napster. As I've said, I don't use Napster, but some musicians are down with it. (I think Boots from the Coup was interviewed on CNN talking about why he likes Napster a while back, and J Robbins of righteous DC punk band Burning Airlines says he's pro-Napster.)

What I'm concerned with is fair use -- I'm perfectly cool with the idea of not trading songs, but what about proprietary formats that wouldn't enable me to play music, read texts, or watch movies that I've purchased, how and where I please? Or worse yet, some sort of DMCA-like legal nightmare that puts me in violation of the law for uploading an Windows eText to my PalmPilot or playing a DVD on my OpenBSD box? That's what I see coming down the pike, and it bothers me.

(Hi Rebis! I dug Doom Patrols!)
posted by snarkout at 9:16 AM on March 9, 2001

In the meanwhile, let's not send a "fuck you" card to people whose work we claim to like, OK?

Yes, let us leave that to Metallica's PR geniuses.

I believe that you are oversimplifying the issue by charactizing it as "IP belongs to those who created it." Technically, of course, you are correct. However, I think in reality it functions more as a partnership between author and audience, on some level. All those writers whose work never left their desk drawers may have derived some personal satisfaction or benefit from their work, but they did not truly participate in the process. I strongly believe that a creative person should be compensated for his work, which is at least as valuable as that of a ditchdigger, for example. But as in any business negotiation, sometimes BOTH sides must change or compromise to reach the best solution.

The primary purpose of ALL art or creative effort is to communicate, and if you don't reach an audience effectively, you're whistling in the dark. It seems to me that the net provides a huge leap forward in our ability to reach audiences, and the existing distribution systems that we currently have in place need to evolve to really take advantage of that.

Another niggling voice in the back of my mind insists that the benefits to society of a free-flow of information would almost certainly outweigh the not-insignificant costs of releasing it from its current fetters (e.g. record companies, conglomerate publishers, agents, distributors, and middlemen of all ilk)...
posted by rushmc at 8:14 AM on March 10, 2001

« Older Can "blocking software" companies be sued?   |   Lobster Sticks to Magnet! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments