ACTA? WTF?

This has been flying under the radar unless you’re like me and you follow uber-geek podcasts like I do.  However, the US government has been quietly pressuring our friends and allies to sign on to a lil treaty called ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.  This is the wonderful little piece of borderline-fascist policy that allows customs officials to go through your property, laptop, iPod, flash-drive, cell phone, CDs, DVDs, cameras. . .  Looking for. . . wait for it. . . pirated movies and music.  Yeah.  Ok.  That’s what we care about.  Bootleg Metallica and unauthorized copies of Roadhouse.  This is so over the line that the EFF actually has to file a lawsuit against Office of the US Trade Representative in order to actually see what the treaty actually says.  According to reports:

Proposals include having customs officers report directly to private businesses, and potentially giving border control staff the right to search media players and computers for pirated material.

Wow. Just Wow. Do we want ICE working for the RIAA? Should the MPAA be seizing laptops at the border because someone backed up a DVD of Spaceballs? Is this a good idea? Worse, even though the treaty hasn’t been finalized yet, the stupidity is already beginning.  (Thanks to Weird Universe.)  We have a situation where according to the Press Republican:

Jerilea Zempel was detained at the U.S. border this summer because she had a drawing of a sport-utility vehicle in her sketchbook.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers told Zempel they suspected her of copyright infringement.

You read right.  A sketchbook.  A drawing of an SUV.  Customs saw this and suspected copyright infringement.

Let me repeat that: They looked at a sketch someone drew of a car and decided that it might be a violation of copyright.  A drawing.  A car.  Are these nimrods fucking kidding me?  These are the people who are going to make legal determinations of the provanance of the tracks on my iPod?  Are we to expect the idiots who couldn’t understand that a DRAWING of a CAR is a transformative work whose copyright is probably owned BY THE PERSON WHO DREW IT are actually going to understand the idea of DRM-free music or a video podcast?

Some thoughts about fan fiction

More or less randomly I was reading a thread on the Agony Booth and got thinking about fan fiction and how it relates to writing more generally. I generally look at fan fiction as a benign thing, as long as the fan work doesn’t start infringing on the rights of the original, (i.e. isn’t commercial.)

Of course, it is very unlikely to become a pro writer doing fan fiction. Most franchises (those that do hire new writers to write new material) will expect a writer to have established some professional chops on their own before considering letting them play in their sandbox. In other words, it is unlikely that anyone’s first sale is going to be a Star Wars novel. Then there are the franchises that aren’t going to let anyone write new stuff, so don’t expect to sell your Potter slash until 75 years after J. K. Rowling kicks the bucket.

Since a lot of beginners are cutting their teeth on the stuff, and at least a few are interested in breaking into the pro market, I have a suggestion that grows out of my recent experience writing Lilly’s Song. The genesis of that novel was in an anime series I saw last year; one that I felt had one hell of an impact aside from its flaws. The impulse I had after watching it was, I think, the same impulse most fan authors feel— being caught up so much in a story that there’s almost a need to express your own take on it. The difference was, since I want to get paid for what I write, I couldn’t just write in someone else’s universe. What I did was a more thorough analysis of that need. I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what it was about this other fictional work I was so affected and interested in. It boiled down to two main things, a particular tone (combination of tone, actually) along with a very particular relationship between two characters. Picking out those elements, and a thread of plot, I was able to take those elements and transplant them into another universe with a different set of characters (a fantasy 13th Century Prussia vs. a sfnal 21st Century Japan).

If you want to break out of writing fan fiction, I’d suggest following a similar procedure. Think deeply about why you want to write about Buffy, or the X-files, or Harry Potter. Be honest, and think about what attracts you, what is it you want to write about: Are you writing about your own characters running around a cool setting? Is it one of the cool characters in your own setting? The storyline? A mood? Once you find that element or elements, divorce it from the original context and rebuild it inside your own fictional world, one that can be universes away from your inspiration. If you write Trek fiction because you like the K/S dynamic, you can write your slash in any military organization in any period of history. If you decide you like Harry Potter’s boarding-school setting, that’s conducive to just about any type of story, even if you still want the mysterious magical campus, its still doable if you change enough of the surroundings; making it a hub of cross-universe study, an orbital habitat that might be an alien being, or maybe its a steampunk building run by a clockwork AI. What elements of a character attract you? A particular attitude? An element of the backstory? Intellect? Martial ability? Fashion sense?

The trick in taking a fictional inspiration and turning it into something original is to isolate what excites you as narrowly as possible, and build back out from there. Once you know what it is you’re trying to capture, you become free to change anything else, and the act of changing can itself become a creative engine.

NOTE: I’m only being coy about the anime that inspired Lilly’s Song because, for those who’ve seen it, it would end up being a substantial spoiler. I do give credit in the acknowledgements.

How to be an asshat, literary edition

To all the aspiring writers out there who want to make a bad impression and leave a permanently sour taste in the mouths of not only your readers but with anyone who’s ever heard of you, Victoria Laurie has some tips for you. (Original post is gone, but once released those electrons don’t go away.)

First off, have skin as thin as possible. Make sure that every negative comment about your work is taken personally and make sure you attack Amazon reviewers by name on your blog. Brag about gaming Amazon to get those nasty evil comments by those nasty evil people removed.

Second, if someone sends you fan mail that says “I like most of your stuff, but this latest series, not so much” make sure to rant, rant, rant. Of course we know this is no fan, after all, this person dared to criticize your work, and we know that no real fan would dare do such a thing. So make sure you publicly threaten this fan, to wit:

And so, come September…my little “fan” and some of her close friends and family will likely read about a character with a very similar name, (i.e. nearly identical but not enough to get me sued) depicted in one of the most comical and fabulously scandalous scenes within Death Perception. And trust me…this isn’t a scene which in any way flatters that character. 🙂 (Also trust me….you’ll know it when you read it!)

Third, just for the hell of it, draw your editor into it:

And by the way – anyone else out there thinking they can just arbitrarily slam an author and feel good about being particularly nasty…be warned….my editor thinks this concept of mine is hilarious and she’s going to suggest the idea to her other authors who are fed up with being targets for the mentally deranged…in other words I’d advise being very careful whom you choose to direct a personal barb at lest your alter ego appear in a less than flattering way in that author’s next book.

Fourth, and most important, when it’s clear you made a pile of poo and stepped in it, and other bloggers start to notice and point out the shit covering your face, make sure you panic, take down the original post on your blog and start sending lawyer-like letters to people making bogus IP claims of copyright infringement for daring to quote the ludicrously stupid things you’ve said.

Bonus Points, make sure that you use an unflattering analogy of yourself as a waiter spitting in someone’s food. That’ll leave an impression.

UPDATE: She doesn’t want to blog about it . . . but let’s post a long rambling rant on how we’re being persecuted by nutcases, post their e-mail addresses on our blog post, drag our editor into it again, and turn off the comments ’cause we just can’t deal with that shit. Mr. Foot, please to meet Mr. Mouth, I am sure you will be so happy together.

UPDATE #2: Then again, if you can’t write a post that doesn’t make you look like a complete psychotic loon, you can always nuke the whole effing blog. You, however, see Victoria’s last gasp, which bordered on actionable slander, (or is it libel, I can’t keep those straight) in part on Jane’s letter to our fair asshat’s editor as posted on Dear Author.

Associated Press and MediaDefender, taking IP way way way too far.

This was a week where I discovered two little tidbits that really set my blood boiling over the state of IP law in this country. In both cases we have companies using the excuse of copyright to act like Uncle Vinnie the Mob Enforcer, but without the pinky ring or sense of style.

First up, the Associated Press, in what seems to be a belated panic about news distribution over the internet, has decided to get all RIAA over the web (and, of course, the recording industry can tell you all how well that’s going) and try to sue anyone who dares quote from their stories without paying license fees protection money. Apparently the threshold for AP calling out the lawyers is 79 words. Fair use anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Is this the new way to monetize the news business? Print stories and then obsessively Google phrases hoping for a Cassie Edwards with deep pockets? So what if I embed a Google news feed into my blog, am I liable for the AP stories that come up in it? Have these asswits thought any of this through? Do they know how stupid they look? Have they ever seen a web browser? I’m waiting for some blogger to sue the AP for quoting 75 words of their content without permission. Wonder how far that will go?

Second group of thuggish IP imperialists going over the line, really went over the line. As in criminal. As in, if they did this to a fortune 500 company they might be up on terrorist charges. Quick synopsis somewhat de-geeked: You have BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing system that, like all file sharing methods, can be used for good or ill. It is best to distribute large files such as Linux distributions, or HD movies. Enter MediaDefender, a company that uses an arsenal of techniques suited to Russian virus authors and Viagra spam merchants, whose mission statement is to prevent piracy of their clients’ media. One favored technique is to flood the internet with bogus copies of pirate files. The way they do this is posing links to said fakes on torrent indexing sites. Now enter Revision3, a small internet TV station that produces video for users to download— via BitTorrent. (dun-dun-dunnn.)

Now, of course, Revision3 would offer a indexing site for their torrents, right? Sure. Now, these indexing sites can be open or closed, and for a time because of technical issues, Revision3’s index was open. That meant anyone could post the location of a torrent there. It should have been closed down so the index only responded to requests for Revision3’s own shows. The response of MediaDefender was not to call up the Revision3 IT staff and say, “Hey, you got an open torrent index here, you sure you want that?” No, their reaction was exactly the same as a pirate’s reaction, “Hey, this index is open. I can post my own (bogus) torrents, Yea!”

Now, so far it’s morally questionable, but not criminal. However, when Revision3 discovers the configuration error on their server (with no help from MediaDefender, which, as you remember, is supposed to stop this sort of thing themselves) their response is to close the index.

One would think that MediaDefender would be happy that the conduit for pirated content was shut down. Apparently they weren’t happy. In fact, their servers were pissed. After being shut out of Revision3’s torrent index, they promptly launched a denial of service attack on Revision3 that took the site down for Memorial Day weekend.

Let that sink in.

They launched a cyber-attack on a legitimate business because the legitimate business stopped linking to pirated torrents. This requires a Doctorate in Stupidity.

I think the AP should hire MediaDefender to protect their copyrighted content. The combined weight of arrogance, cluelessness and stupidity might just shatter the whole structure of IP law as we know it— which I am beginning to think is not a bad thing.

People who should know better

As the whole Cassie Edwards story pointed out, it is hard to be a plagiarist these days. Anyone with just a little suspicion can use the internet to correctly attribute just about anything, so it is a stupid, stupid, thing to do. The kind of thing you really only expect from people who never had the proper academic grounding, or a good English teacher flunking them for appropriating someone’s words. . .

Then again, if your English teacher was James Twitchell, I expect that flunking his students for plagiarism was not all that high on his priority list. Seems he’s owned up to plagiarizing sections of his book for Simon & Schuster, Shopping for God. (via GalleyCat)

In his own words (we hope):

It’s my responsibility to make sure that the words and ideas are my own and, if not, that they are properly credited. In many cases, I have not done this. […] I have used the words of others and not properly attributed them. I am always in a hurry to get past descriptions to make my points, a hurry that has now rightly resulted in much shame and embarrassment. I have cheated by using pieces of descriptions written by others.

Which is a fine mea culpa, except when you consider he’s been publishing since 1995 and initially blamed the lifting in the latest book on sloppy research even as earlier incidences in prior books came to light. Where have we heard that one before?

Why DRM sucks

I am a writer, that means I make money off of my intellectual property.

This does not mean I like digital rights management in any way, shape, or form. Here is an object lesson why. I don’t even blame Microsoft for giving the finger to all their former MSN Music customers, because tying rights to a user’s hardware is an inherently untenable model. With any DRM scheme, you are telling the end user “buy content, buy content, buy content” at the same time saying, “but we’ll have to shitcan all the content when the hardware changes, we sell the company, or go bankrupt.” Do we want a world where a publisher can go under and people have legitimately owned content that just expires? Of course, the bean counters like the idea of the user buying it all over again, but how many users will tolerate that? Who’s willing to gamble their entire library on the chance that Kindle 2.0 won’t be backward compatible?

The economic goal here is not to squeeze the end user, it’s to make sure the content creator gets paid enough to continue creating the content. Metallica and Haraln Ellison may bitch and moan about their audience “stealing” their work, but unless they’re at the point they’re selling stuff out of their trunk, the end user ain’t who’s signing their checks, and books and CDs ain’t what they’re selling. They (and I, and most creative types) are selling the right to publish our creation to some other entity. As long as that entity makes money on the transaction, they will continue to buy Metallica’s songs and Mr. Ellison’s books. Royalties are just a mechanism of profit-sharing that’s essentially arbitrary— most writers get an advance against those royalties that’s negotiated as high as possible to get as much money as possible up front. So, ideally, you get paid a lump that hits a sweet spot that exceeds all the future royalties by just enough not to eat into the publisher’s profits so much they don’t want to buy the next book. DRM exists as an attempt to preserve the current economic model, not to serve the ultimate goal of that model. The goal is to make money on content, not to force people to pay for content, a subtle, but profound difference.

Frankly, if a publisher of mine can figure out how to turn a larger profit on my books by giving them away, assuming I share in that profit somehow, I’m ok with that.

And the asshat for today is. . .

Paul McGuinness, manager of U2. Ok, we get it, music piracy = bad.

But, do we think that either a) Making ISPs responsible for policing net traffic for copyrighted data or b) Taxing ISPs to compensate artists (read: compensate the monolith corporations that profit from said artists) are in fact good ideas?

Quoth asshat:

If you were a magazine advertising stolen cars, handling the money for stolen cars and seeing to the delivery of stolen cars, the police would soon be at your door. That’s no different to an ISP.

So a manager for a major rock group can’t tell the difference between a content provider and a distribution channel. So if some *cough*Negitiveland*cough* artist decided to sample too much of U2s songs, he’d figure it was reasonable to expect the record stores selling the offending CD to be liable? Or maybe he just wants the stores to check their product for oversampling.

In case you weren’t sure what plagiarism isn’t.

The whole Cassie Edwards flap continues to ripple outward, leaving blog posts and long comment threads in its wake. One of the things it has unearthed is a widespread misunderstanding of what plagiarism actually is, leading to some rather eloquent posts on the subtle difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism.

But there is another widespread confusion that also needs to be addressed. It seems that for every person who believes “she did noting wrong”, or “she was just lifting non-fictional facts”, or “it’s romance so it don’t really matter. . .” there’s someone else who’s just as willing to dive overboard and say “hey that (description of a) book looks like (a description of) some other book,” and point screaming “PLAGIARIST” like Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Such people don’t get the fact that, in fiction at least, there’s no ethical problem with taking ideas/plots from prior work and adapting them to your own.

In fact, there’d be a bit of a problem if there was such a restraint as is pointed out rather amusingly on the Smart Bitches‘ blog:

There seems to be some confusion regarding the status of ideas in copyright law. You can’t copyright a plot or an idea. You can only copyright the specific expression of that plot or idea as recorded in some sort of tangible form. Think about the nightmare of attempting to nail down and legislate a plot or idea for a story. How specific would you have to be before you could declare something unique enough to copyright?

“An angst-ridden story about a vampire falling in love with a human.” Dude, if you can copyright that and collect a small fee every time somebody published that story, you could have your own giant pool of gold coins to swim in, Scrooge McDuck-stylee. (Side note: doesn’t that sound like a painful idea to you? Because it always has to me.)

Or, as Justine Larbalestier pointed out in a follow-up on her blog:

I am so sick of people thinking that retelling a story is plagiarism. If that were so then we would have, at most, ten novels. All books about vampires, zombies, middle-aged English professors are not the same (well, okay, some of them are). It’s not about the story you tell so much as HOW YOU TELL IT. Why is that so difficult to understand?

Georgette Heyer did not plagiarise Jane Austen. David Eddings didn’t plagiarise J. R. R. Tolkien. Walter Mosley didn’t plagiarise Raymond Chandler. I did not plagiarise C. S. Lewis.

The next person who says to me, “Oh my God! Did you see that Certain Writer’s next book is set in a future world where you have to have your skin removed and replaced with carbon when you turn sixteen? That is just like Scott’s Uglies books! He should sue!” That person will get smacked. HARD.

For some reason, a lot of people are tied up with this misunderstanding, to the point that I’ve seen multiple someones opine that Author A should sue Author B because of some similarity in plot mechanics. (“OMG they both feature red-haired were-weasels in a New-England high school!!!1!) In their view the similarity (usually between two Amazon-style plot synopses) is a BAD THING.

To this I say, “No, it isn’t, you twit.”

Fiction endlessly recycles plots, characters, tropes and the other structural elements of a story. Fiction is in a constant dialog with itself, and many stories are written in reaction to prior work. My own Emperors of the Twilight is a response of Heinlein’s Friday, Dragons of the Cuyahoga was directly inspired by the “Future Boston” portrayed in In the Cube by David Alexander Smith, Raven has Edgar Allan Poe smeared all over it, the situation in Broken Crescent bears a (in this case accidental) significant resemblance to the plot set up in Wizard’s Bane by Rick Cook, and a large part of Wolfbreed #1 owes its genesis to an anime series I’m rather fond of.

Those of you who’ve not gotten the point are going to start getting all Sutherland on me, somehow thinking my history of literary borrowing makes me a hypocrite for jumping all over poor Ms. Edwards. Let me clarify something for you. In fiction. . .

PLAGIARISM IS THE COPYING OF SOMEONE ELSE’S TEXT. T-E-X-T. NOT PLOT, NOT IDEA, NOT SOME CHARACTER’S ÜBER-COOL SUPERPOWER. TEXT! AS IN, THE PLAGIARIST OPENS THE SOURCE AND COPIES THE WORDS THERE! GET IT?

Thanks.

Irony, thy name is Cassie Edwards

I thought I had posted all I was going to on this. But, then, my wife was waiting at Walgreens to get a prescription filled and was walking past the book isle, and came across this. I draw your attention to the lower right corner.