I have just read an interesting post by Ted Ts’O about copyright protection on the net [1]. Ted is well known as a free software programmer, but it’s slightly less well known that he is an avid Science-Fiction fan. In the Free Software community most people seem to be interested in Sci-Fi, but Ted is more interested than most.

Ted’s post concerns the irresponsible actions of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America [2] (SFWA). To summarise it they issued DMCA [3] take-down notices for any web page that matched a search on the names “Asimov” or “Silverberg“. I don’t approve of the DMCA laws as a collection, but take-down notices are not necessarily bad (I have issued such notices for unauthorised copies of my own work in the past). The problem in this case is that the words in question are extremely common, not only might they be used as the names for other people (authors or characters) but Asimov in particular is a well known term when describing the potential development of intelligent computers that operate robots (see the Three Laws of Robotics [4]), the term “not Asimov Compliant” has been used by Alastair Reynolds in Century Rain to refer to a class of military robots that have no compunction about killing humans.

Among the fall-out of the SFWA actions was the removal of a free novel by Cory Doctorow [4]. Incidentally my favourite free to download Cory Doctorow book is Eastern Standard Tribe [5]. craphound.com has Cory’s blog as well as links to other free Sci-Fi that he’s written.

Reading the links from Ted’s post took me to a blog entry by the current SFWA vice-president [6] which describes authors such as Cory Doctorow as “webscabs“. This offends me greatly. My work and that of my friends in writing free software could be described in the same way (and in fact is described in a similar way by some software monopolists). Every blogger could have their work described in a similar way by paid journalists.

The fact that the SFWA VP is not representing SFWA when writing such comments does little to allay concern about this. It seems to me that people with such ideas are intent on attacking my community, and that it would be wrong of me to give any of them $0.50 by buying one of their books. I resolve to not buy any more Sci-Fi books until I have read all the freely available books that I want to read. After that I will prioritise my book purchases with a significant factor being how well the author gets the concepts of copyright etc. If nothing else an author who can’t understand how copyright (something that is essential to their own livelyhood) interacts with current computer systems will have significant difficulties in predicting how technology and society will develop over the next hundred or thousand years.

My problem in reading Sci-Fi books is not in discovering books that are enjoyable and which contain interesting concepts, but in finding time to read them. Thanks to SFWA for giving me an extra criteria to cull the list of books to read.

6 thoughts on “Web-Scabs”

  1. JA says:

    Russel, since you seem open to the notion of CC licensed fiction, I wonder if you might not like this.

  2. Robert Thau says:

    A minor correction: the author of the screed in your footnote [6] *was* the current VP of SFWA at the time he wrote it, but he no longer is. The current incumbent in the position, Andrew Burt, has a bit more knowledge of net-related matters, but so far, that’s been a dangerous thing; he happens to also be the clueless git that sent out the DMCA notices that provoked the furor. (The organization’s “epiracy prevention” activities, BTW, have been suspended, pending review).

  3. Russ Allbery says:

    Deciding not to read any more SF novels until you’ve read all the free books you want to read when many SF authors aren’t members of SFWA precisely because of this and others are to try to vote for people like John Scalzi in SFWA elections to try to get rid of this nonsense strikes me as a bit counter-productive. SFWA doesn’t speak for the entire SF book industry. In fact, that’s a large amount of the problem here; SFWA speaks for a very odd and peculiar subset of the published SF writers.

    Every SF author whose non-fiction writings I follow regularly who’s expressed an opinion has pretty much said that SFWA were idiots here. I think SFWA is fast losing relevance.

  4. etbe says:

    Russ: I am not going to cease reading novels. I am merely going to change my priorities for selecting which novels to read, and add a significant weight to the author’s attitudes when selecting which novel to read next.

    If it turns out that the time taken to read online novels exceeds my time available for reading then I will probably cease buying books.

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