In 2001 I wrote an article for The Industry Standard about the Harlan Ellison's one man war against people uploading his short stories to Usenet. I interviewed him on the phone for the piece and the first thing he told me was, "I can't talk to you. I'm very busy. I've got a deadline." He then launched into a 30-minute rant about everything wrong with the world (example: "You just look around and say, 'Mother of God, the gene pool is just polluted and we really ought to turn it over to the cockroaches if we can't do any better than this!'") Here's the article.
Clowns. Morons. Thieves. Thugs. Little pirates. Self-indulgent adolescents. That's what Harlan Ellison calls people who post his fiction on the Net without his permission.
Such talk has made Ellison as legendary for his acts of vengeance as for his literary work. Sure, he's written 74 books and classic episodes of Star Trek and Outer Limits. But an angry Ellison also once mailed a dead gopher to a book editor. On another occasion, he flew from Los Angeles to New York to tear apart an editor's office. Then there's the time he brought a gun to a meeting. (He swears it wasn't loaded.)
But Stephen Robertson probably didn't know any of that, or surely he would've been more careful. Last April, Robertson, a 40-year-old motel manager in Red Bluff, Calif., was caught uploading several of Ellison's short stories to a newsgroup where hundreds of free – and unauthorized – digitized books and stories are posted for the taking. Ellison promptly nailed him with a lawsuit, which Robertson ended up settling for some $3,600.
Despite the alleged illegality of his acts, Robertson is an archetypal member of science fiction fandom, an intensely loyal and active community of readers. For decades, sci-fi fans communicated through mimeographed zines and at annual conventions. When the Net came along, with its chat rooms, fan sites and file swapping, it was as if they'd finally made contact with the mothership. But Ellison is underwhelmed by such devotion, especially when it involves trading his stories. "At some point," says Ellison, "you just look around and say, 'Mother of God, the gene pool is just polluted and we really ought to turn it over to the cockroaches if we can't do any better than this!'"
The suit against Robertson was the first salvo in Ellison's war against e-book pirates. Ellison also targeted AOL and RemarQ, a Usenet subscription service, for providing access to the pirated work. And just last month, Ellison founded Kick Internet Piracy, a fund he hopes will help defray the $40,000 he's spent on legal fees so far.
Many in the publishing community say Ellison's frothy-mouthed assault is a one-man example of how not to fight the online copyright battle. In his relentless campaign, Ellison risks losing free publicity, alienating fans and shutting down Usenet, the distributed-discussion system whose newsgroups are among the last, vast, unregulated portions of the Net.
So far, Ellison is largely waging this fight alone. He lacks the support of big publishers, who just aren't that worried. Real piracy, as industry representatives see it, isn't practiced at newsgroups like alt.binaries.e-book, where Robertson posted his stories. Genuine piracy is making facsimiles of books and charging money for them, says Allan Adler, VP of legal and government affairs for the American Association of Publishers. A zero-tolerance-style clampdown, Adler adds, could end up "alienating the people who are your most important market."
But Ellison is not only going after the swappers. In a suit filed in federal court, he accuses AOL and RemarQ of failing to stop the alleged copyright infringers in accordance with the "Notice and Takedown Procedure" outlined in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Neither AOL nor RemarQ responded to requests for comment.
The hair-raising part of Ellison's lawsuit, according to some, is its potential to squelch free speech on the Net. Two days after AOL was served with Ellison's lawsuit, it blocked access to alt.binaries.e-book. RemarQ blocked posts containing Ellison's work. The moves have sparked concern among Ellison's fellow science fiction authors about what he's wrought. Charles Platt, a science fiction writer and journalist, believes that "if service providers are made to fear litigation, censorship will be the inevitable result."
Ellison, who doesn't use the Internet and writes everything on a manual typewriter, does have some supporters. One fan conducts online stings to identify infringers. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has allocated $5,000 to stop Net-based copyright infringement. (Ellison's attorney, Christine Valada, is also the SFWA's legal counsel.) Ellison says his Kick Internet Piracy fund has received $1,300 in contributions from donors, including popular science fiction writers Ben Bova and Frank M. Robinson. Not quite the cost of his legal fees, but it's a start.
Ellison may be wasting his energy. Many science fiction writers are online fanatics and think the Internet is a great way to market their products and increase their readership. Cory Doctorow – winner of the Year 2000 John W. Campbell Award for best new science fiction writer and co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction" – views unauthorized postings as "a chance to align the interests of writers and publishers and audiences, to make us all into partners who co-evangelize the stuff we love."
Doctorow points out that several science fiction authors, including Jim Munroe and David Pesci, were given print publishing deals for books after offering them free online. And well-known, Net-savvy writers Bruce Sterling and Kevin Kelly gave away electronic versions of their books at the same time the print versions were available, with no visible detriment to offline sales.
Indeed, some publishers have had great luck giving away their titles online. Science fiction publisher Baen Books (whose books are distributed by Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster) has found that giving away books online boosts sales of the paperback versions.
"The real enemy of authors – especially midlist writers – is not piracy," says Baen's online librarian Eric Flint. "It's obscurity."
Two-thirds of the e-mail Flint has received since the Baen Free Library began posting books is from readers who purchased books they initially downloaded from the site.
But Ellison is having none of that. Those who aren't on his side "have all the business capacity of an emu with its head in the sand."
And if he must stand alone in his battle to defend his works from craven offenders, so be it. "I'm tired of the bullies and the thieves, and if other writers won't do it," he says, "well, this is not the first time I've found myself standing on the edge of the abyss."
Image: Harlan Ellison at a Star Trek Convention, by Pip R. Lagenta/Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)