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 channel…at 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"