Science Fiction Writers of America reinstates E-Piracy Committee -- new name, same chairman

The Board of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has reinstated Andrew Burt as chairman of its copyright committee, despite the recommendations of the group that was chartered to investigate SFWA's work on copyright in the wake of August's illegal and damaging campaign against the text-hosting site Scribd.

Last August, Andrew Burt, the vice president of SFWA, sent a list of thousands of works that he alleged violated the copyrights of Robert Silverberg and the Isaac Asimov estate. This list was compiled by searching the Scribd site for the words "asimov" and "silverberg" and it included my own novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a teacher's guide to great science fiction for young readers, and the entire back-catalog of a science fiction magazine whose editors had placed their work on Scribd. Burt sent an email to Scribd's management in which he said that this list wasn't "idle musing, but a DMCA notice."

In the ensuing debacle, Burt (who's position as SFWA vice president is the result of an uncontested ballot) repeatedly claimed that his list contained "three errors" -- the real number was more like dozens, if not hundreds, of innocents who were accused of being pirates because they had quoted or merely mentioned science fiction writers.

He also singled me out for vilification, suggesting that I had timed my public disclosure of this in order to cause him damage -- I posted the information as soon as I had all the facts, in the middle of the afternoon at the World Science Fiction Convention, after taking the time to talk it over with many fellow writers, including fellow past officers of the organization (I am the former Canadian Director of SFWA). Burt persists to this day in claiming that I posted "at midnight on a holiday weekend," a gross mischaracterization that's as absurd as the claim that "only three works" were misidentified by his notice.

Burt's copyright projects for SFWA have been controversial and divisive. He created a push-poll that attempted to convince the membership to stop Amazon from indexing their books; he created a non-working system for poisoning ebooks and ruining the download experience and then patented it, in his name, at the organization's expense (he has promised to return the money); he helped create a loyalty oath in which members were told to swear to "respect patents and trademarks" and so on.

SFWA's response to Burt's embarrassing and damaging negligence in the Scribd matter was to dissolve the "E-Piracy Committee" that Burt had chaired and to charter a new committee to investigate better ways for the organization to grapple with copyright. That committee was chaired by John Scalzi, whom I respect and like. I declined to work on the committee, however, as I was skeptical that it would make progress , given that Burt was to have a seat on it. Update: John Scalzi clarifies in the comments below, "the committee of which I was the chair did not have Andrew Burt on it; I would not have participated on it if it had, for the reason that having him being the committee would not have been useful."

The committee returned its recommendations to the SFWA board and included (in the words of committee member Charlie Stross) "[a] further recommendation was discussed...brought to the attention of the president of SFWA via a back all costs, Andrew Burt must be kept the hell away from the copyright committee. In view of his earlier activities, his appointment to it would automatically destroy any credibility the new body would have."

Stross has posted an angry public denunciation of the Board's response to these recommendations -- specifically, the Board's decision to reinstate Burt as chairman of the renamed Copyright Committee. One commenter has pointed out that Burt got to vote for himself in the Board's deliberations, and did not recuse himself on the basis of a conflict on interest.

John Scalzi has also posted on the matter, in less heated voice, but with equal definitiveness: dissolving the E-Piracy Committee and replacing it with a new committee with the same chairman is not an effective resolution to SFWA's problems with copyright.

Stross feels that the Board's reinstatement of Burt was a betrayal of the committee members who volunteered to work on a new direction for the organization on copyright. I believe he's right.

To say that this is a fuckwitted decision is an understatement. Under Dr Burt, the new copyright committee will almost inevitably devolve into a reincarnation of the old piracy committee. If I thought it'd do any good I'd be resigning in protest right now; only the expense of a life membership purchased a couple of years ago is restraining me right now. Clearly the current executive of SFWA is making damaging decisions and ignoring input from committees it appointed, and and in view of this I call on SFWA president Mike Capobianco and the rest of the SFWA executive – including Andrew Burt – to resign immediately. Meanwhile, I'd like to call on all other SFWA members who don't want to see their organization commit public relations suicide to make their voices heard.

As for my own role in the affair, I consider this to be a betrayal of trust. I've been used as a stalking-horse to legitimize a process I absolutely despise; I've put in a fair amount of work on a project that was clearly intended as a distraction and which has now been set aside and ignored by the man who commissioned it. I will not forget this – and the current SFWA executive should consider that cozening and lying to their own members is not usually considered best practice for representing the members' best interests.

Link to Charlie Stross's post, Link to John Scalzi's post

See also:
Science Fiction Writers of America abuses the DMCA
Why writers should stop worrying about "ebook piracy"


  1. Doesn’t this indicate how out of touch those SFWA members are. I think if I were a member I’d be embarrassed for them.

    I think Charlie should start an International Guild of Working Writers. He’s creditable and smart.

  2. There is no longer any reason to continue to be in an organization you don’t believe in.

    The world is Open Source.

    Start a new organization, with new goals, and invite people to join, much as you have invited people to Boing-Boing. Gee, that hasn’t worked out.

    You can’t force people to be other than who and what they are. Join with like-minded people who are more valuable in creating wonderful things together.

    Life is uncertain…

  3. The purpose of the SFWA is to promote Sci-Fi writing rather than sue emerging authors, right?

    Why don’t they run competitions with categories for “most original sci-fi” for completely new ideas and “best rewrite on an old motif” for people who do want to adapt Azimov and the like?

    Threats of legal action, whether idle musings or not, are against the spirit of a creative organization. Surely the fact that people want to make derivative works based on Azimov is a `Good Thing’, showing what he said was actually relevant?

    eg. The estate of Jorge Borges isn’t suing Paolo Coelho over “The Alchemist” or “The Zahir” though arguably they’re expansions around Borges’ short stories – Coelho includes his own creative efforts and people know to read Borges to get the original deal…

    A logical explanation, Captian…A bit more investigation reveals that Burt Andrews is involved with a website that competes with Scribd, and he is following the old-fashioned way of doing business in America; “Sue thy competitors” rather than “compete on merits”.

    Surely no one person can can both run a sci-fi writing website and direct the SFWA to sue one of his competitors, while pretending to have integrity and impartiality?

    Why are the SFWA allowing their organisation to be subverted to promote one business over another?

  4. Dissolving a controversial and dysfunctional committee and reforming it under a different name is an old and time-honored method of deflecting criticism. But to put the chair of the dissolved committee in charge of the shiny new one seems like a huge and deliberate fuck you to the dissenting membership.
    they didn’t even try to be politic about it

  5. “That committee was chaired by John Scalzi, whom I respect and like. I declined to work on the committee, however, as I was skeptical that it would make progress, given that Burt was to have a seat on it.”

    To be clear, the committee of which I was the chair did not have Andrew Burt on it; I would not have participated on it if it had, for the reason that having him being the committee would not have been useful.

    I would like to say that the members of SFWA who were on the committee represented the best of SFWA — we had a wide range of opinions about copyright, author’s rights, and SFWA’s role therein, and for all that we focused on our task, left personalities aside, we came together to unanimously present a set of recommendations to SFWA’s board (however, as noted, reconstituting the previous committee was neither an implicit nor explicit recommendation).

    Regardless of what the board chose to do in the wake of our work, I think our committee did an excellent job at its task, and I was proud to have worked with those SFWA members.

  6. Andrew wasn’t on the committee? What’s that about — the last time I put him in my killfile, it was in the middle of him trying to get me to join him on the committee, while simultaneously telling me that he didn’t have anything to *really* apologize about in the Scribd affair, since all that happened was that my work was unavailable for a few days (ignoring, as always, the ill will engendered among my fans who believed that the takedown notice had originated with me and that I had reneged on my CC license). That’s when I added him to the killfile and walked away.

  7. These days, I only ever read new fiction if it’s cc (or other open) licensed and the occasional known-quantity, small-press author (see: John Shirley). If I can manage 12 pieces of fiction a year (along with non-fiction and occupational reading), then I’m doing good. So, the cc stuff that is released usually keeps my queue full.

  8. What is it about human beings in generel – at least these days – that lead them down such paths of folly? Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who defined insanity as committing the same act repeatedly in anticipation of different outcome? When are we (or at least, the rest of us) going to wise up and stop trying to control everything? News like this just makes me sad and disgruntled – and I much prefer being happy and gruntled.


  9. Cory@6:

    I believe that in the wake of the blow-up, Mr. Burt was trying to assemble a committee, yes; I was on the invite list for that as well. I believe Mr. Burt was acting on his own remit with that. Like you, I would not have participated in that committee.

    Independent of that, Mr. Capobianco, the SFWA president, was looking to assemble an exploratory committee, per board resolution, and I volunteered to be on that committee. Mr. Capobianco asked me to chair the committee, which I agreed to; at the same times I strongly stressed to him that in my opinion no current board member (a group which included Mr. Burt) should be on the committee, as it would not be useful for the board to be perceived as influencing the committee in any way.

    The members of the exploratory board were: Me, Charles Stross, Cat Rambo, Jane Yolen, Greg Bear, Jim C. Hines and Elizabeth Moon, with Megan Lindholm as a non-voting advisor. Mr. Burt, as VP of SFWA, was ex officio as he is on all SFWA committees due to the nature of SFWA’s by-laws, but did not participate in or have access to the discussions we were having. All contact with the board, including Mr. Burt, went through me as chairman.

    I can assure you that had there been any successful attempt by Mr. Burt or any other board member to inject himself into our proceedings, I would have immediately resigned and gone public. Loudly.

    Our committee’s charge was to offer the board recommendations on moving forward on copyright after having consulted with the SFWA membership; we did so, after which the board discussed the recommendations and made their own determinations based on our work. It accepted some, made modifications to others, and apparently misinterpreted at least one (we did not suggest reconstituting the previous ePiracy committee as the new Copyright Committee).

    One tragedy here is that the actual new process which SFWA will use to aid members who ask for its help appears robust and less liable to create the sort of screw-ups which precipitated the whole crisis to begin with; but this is obscured by the fact of whom it is SFWA’s board chose to head up the committee responsible for carrying out the process.

  10. Poor research, a loyalty oath, lies and mis-statements? Does this guy work for the Bush administration, by any chance?

  11. To quote Humungus from The Road Warrior:

    “There has been too much violence, too much pain. None here are without sin. But I have an honorable compromise. Just walk away.”

  12. When I started getting published, I set a goal for myself of joining the SFWA. That goal has been discarded, now. I have no interest in the organization.

    Hmmmn. I need another reasonable goal as an author. Excluding money, fame, and shelves full of Hugos as unlikely leaves me with ‘Getting better press than Andrew Burt’, I suppose. No, wait, that’s too easy. Hmn.

  13. FYI – Patents are required to always be filed in the name of the individual human inventor or inventors (not an organization or corporation).

  14. So what if you posted “at midnight on a holiday weekend,”—how does it help if everyone is out of town and away at their relatives? In most cases that dooms a story, because the media is already talking about Monday morning news!

    /go get ’em Cory!

  15. Go get ’em, Cory! In my own opinion, this Burt guy sounds like one of those folks who love to take power and exercise it. He’ll fight to retain the power, not because he’s the best one for SFWA. Kick him to the curb!

  16. I just removed a comment — quite a nasty one, too — that attempted to revive the Le Guin controversy. It’s not going to happen. That matter was settled some time ago, to the satisfaction of both parties.

    I will remove any comments, here or in any other thread, that try to bring up that piece of finished business.

  17. So, if there is a new organization to promote SF writers, will it use the proposal of the Scalzi committee for copyright management?

  18. I just had this conversation with my partner:

    me: “They should start a new organization. The New Science Fiction Writers.”

    him: “The NSFW?”

  19. I think the best point I can make is to direct my brief comment time to something Larry Lessig said in his presentation at TED in March 2007 (a link to a video of this talk can be found here on BoingBoing). Here he is speaking on the remixing of music and video found online, which is becoming more and more pervasive and acceptable in digital culture, especially among the youngest generations. This certainly also applies to those up and coming authors who wish to play off the ideas or, or directly draw from, great writers past and present.

    “We live in this weird time, this kind of age of prohibitions, where in many areas of our life we live life constantly against the law. Ordinary people live life against the law, and that’s what we are doing to our kids. They live life knowing they live it against the law. That realization is extraordinarily corrosive, extraordinarily corrupting, and in a democracy we ought to be able to do better…do better, at least for them, if not for opening for business.”

  20. Laurie Mann@19:

    Maybe this is a silly point, but I’d personally demur from calling it the “Scalzi Committee.” The work was equally shared and the recommendations were unanimous; praise (or blame) should accrue to all members equally. They made it pretty easy to be the chair.

  21. Hey Theresa! You are free to delete whatever comments you want, but (profiled on wired), has just gone live yesterday. It’s brand new, and still pretty empty, but one of the first threads created in the “I was wrongly censored” category? BoingBoing censorship. I expect many more.

  22. ABurt invokes history and community service as his defense. But history can be a two-edged sword:

    On your blog, you write the following:

    I’ve historically had a reputation as a fair and open-minded person who tries to do good work for the community at large (such as Nyx, Critters, etc.), so I hope that says something.
    Historically, you used the Critters newsletter to take cheap public potshots at Cory Doctorow. When I called you on that, you were neither fair, nor open-minded, nor apologetic. After a lengthy thread seeking, unsuccessfully, to persuade you that it was an abuse of power using Critters as your own private podium for vendetta, I resigned from Critters in protest.

    This is the sort of thing that people point to with regard to your activity with this committee. The chorus of voices today is not that of a mindless lynchmob, it is the collection of individual observations of a smart, literate public who see what is there to see – a man with suspect credibility and questionable character. As long as Michael is hitching the entire SFWA wagon to you, personally, the entire process is tainted.

  23. Nicetry:


    How does it feel to know that the single most attention-getting thing you can do in life is to deliberately post comments that are guaranteed to get removed from Boing Boing, and then when they’re removed, go running wah wah wah to some anti-censorship site to complain about it?

    I’m sure everyone will be impressed.

  24. It is a typical irony that an administrator of an organization like this–many of whose members are so focussed on the future–seems to be so buried in the past.

    I also find it distressing that some of my favorite authors (Scalzi, Stross, Bear and Moon in particular) are/were devoting time (when they could be writing more awesome stuff for me to read) to battling an entrenched, seemingly corrupt, bureaucracy.

    I realize that is a selfish viewpoint.

    Also, “Scalzi, Stross, Bear and Moon” would be a good name for a band.

  25. John, so the “former SFWA copyright committee?”

    It’s bound to have some reference; it’s bound to come up.

  26. Laurie Mann@30:

    “SFWA Copyright Exploratory Committee” is probably the best one.


    Well, Bear plays guitar and I play drums, so you’re halfway there.

    Wil Wheaton@27:

    Heh. No, probably not.

  27. Wil Wheaton (27), I can’t argue with that.

    What I want to know is, what kind of dysfunctional organization has SFWA become, that protecting the tender feelings of a useless no-talent con artist like Andrew Burt matters more than the tremendous amount of damage he’s doing?

    The man has no professional career. He wangled his way into SFWA via some short stories in anthologies published by SFF Net. His one novel is self-published.

    What I’m about to say is so pathetic that saying it almost makes me feel sorry for him. Here goes: Is it any wonder that he wants to hold on to his committee position, in spite of the harm he’s doing to the organization? Being Vice-President of SFWA and Head of the E-Piracy Committee is literally the high point of Andrew Burt’s writing career.

  28. @32: While I agree with you in general, I hate to make blanket statements when it comes to a career like Burt’s. It reeks of ad hominem, for one thing.

    For another, in the sphere of sports, many of the most gifted coaches and managers were mediocre if not terrible players.

    Frankly, as I noted above, I would rather have the life of a poor writer taken up by administrative minutia than that of one of the true geniuses of our time.

  29. “but one of the first threads created in the “I was wrongly censored” category? BoingBoing censorship.”

    It’s not censorship; it’s ownership. Having a comment deleted from a webforum is no more censorship than your letter to the editor not getting printed in the Times.

    The Web is 15 years old; this should not be some startling new discovery. The existence of people who maintain such an ignorant sense of entitlement just blows my mind.

  30. Jim Cowling, try the last section of this comment. If you’ve got the appetite for a long discussion of that plus related issues (plus a lot of reasonably interesting digressions), read this.

    And just to let everyone else know: this thread is not about censorship.

  31. As a science fiction fan, it disturbs me that SFWA representatives take such a hostile position towards educators and fans. Here’s hoping that the organization stops harassing their biggest advocates and starts helping it’s members cope with “new” technologies in a positive way.

  32. Pop Astronaut, SFWA’s pretty friendly to educators and fans. Andrew Burt, not so much. The problem is that SFWA puts up with more than they should from Andrew Burt.

  33. Some people are advocating a boycott of writers who are members of SFWA in an effort to get fence sitters to either leave the organization or explicitly stay (and therefore endorse Burt and his policies).

    Why even stay a member at this point? Tobias Buckell resigned today, effective immediately.

  34. @33 “For another, in the sphere of sports, many of the most gifted coaches and managers were mediocre if not terrible players.”

    Too true. And your point is well taken.

    However, some of the worst coaches and managers were mediocre if not terrible players.

    Judge them on their merits as coaches and managers. Nothing further.

    BTW, if the players want to hang them, they’re either doing really well, or really poorly. History tends to sort that out.

  35. @40: I completely agree. You’ve clearly stated precisely what I was trying to get across.

    In the current example, I am quite sure that history will be the final judge.

    Having worked for and contracted with a number of non-profits and industry organizations in my early career, this whole thing has a familiar stink.

  36. Nothing remains but for someone to gravely intone that Only Time Will Tell.

  37. Organizations like SFWA are constrained by an entire ecology of legacy structures to which they must forever remain attached.

    New organizations like Oort-Cloud are a possible alternative for writers who want to exist in the new open/sharing online networks.

  38. I don’t know, Paul — SFWA may be frustrating, but it doesn’t make you read slush.

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