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The Spider-Man of the sci-fi writing world

Anticopyright activists have made Andrew Burt a scapegoat for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America's problems with pirates.

I was a big Spider-Man fan when I was a kid. I could never understand why poor Spidey was persecuted by J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle. I was especially mystified by how easily Jameson could get the police to pursue Spider-Man despite all the obvious good he was doing.

I'd like to think that anyone familiar with the Spider-Man stories--and who isn't, considering that the three recent movies brought in $2.5 billion at the box office plus untold additional revenue from the DVD releases--would appreciate the irony of Peter Parker's position. He does so much good for the world, but he gets persecuted for it.

But obviously that lesson hasn't been learned by some writers and fans who really ought to know better.

Three months ago, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America dissolved a committee created to pursue copyright violations when the committee's chairman, Andrew Burt, made a fairly significant mistake in his dealings with a free text-sharing site called Scribd.

Scribd was hosting thousands of documents violating the copyrights of SFWA members, and declining to cooperate with SFWA's demand that Scribd remove them. Scribd said it was entitled to individual DMCA takedown notices for each one. In truth, however, the DMCA doesn't allow a Web site to hide behind the official takedown process this way. As I explained in my blog posts at the time (part one, part two, part three), the DMCA requires Internet service providers to remove pirated content no matter how they become aware of it.

But Scribd wasn't responding appropriately, telling SFWA to "pound sand" (as writer Jerry Pournelle described it on his blog earlier this week). Burt, perhaps out of frustration, told Scribd to treat a list of apparently infringing documents as if it was a DMCA takedown notice, which it wasn't--but Scribd removed the pirated documents as well as some incorrectly listed items, including a story from writer Cory Doctorow and posted to Scribd by one of his fans.

It's clear to me that in spite of Burt's mistake--he should have made his case on the language of the DMCA rather than incorrectly attempting to convert an informal list into a formal demand--this whole process was a big win for the good guys. A bunch of pirated content was removed, and the other material was restored within days.

But anticopyright activists, with Doctorow in the lead, raised a huge stink over the incident because they felt Burt was acting irresponsibly. They persuaded SFWA to shut down Burt's committee and establish an advisory committee to recommend ways to deal with the threat from book pirates while being more careful about the law.

The advisers released their recommendations on November 1, and about four weeks later, SFWA's board voted to follow almost all of them, creating a new Copyright Committee with a broader charter but closer oversight.

But because the board put Burt in charge of the new committee, all the people who were angry with SFWA over the Scribd affair became outraged all over again.

Andrew Burt
Andrew Burt

So there we have it. Burt doesn't look anything like Spider-Man, but he's had about the same effect--the streets get cleaned up at the cost of a few sticky bits left hanging around. And what's his reward? A few loudmouths are demanding his arrest and summary execution.

If you aren't impressed by this analogy yet, you have to compare this drawing of J. Jonah Jameson with this photo of Cory Doctorow.

Buzz cut, skimpy facial hair, cancer stick--I rest my case.

Doctorow ought to know better. Even if he prefers to distribute his writings free of charge and make his living another way, he should show more respect for the right of other writers to sell their work. He should be supporting SFWA, not book pirates and those who protect them. And that goes for all the other SFWA members who've been giving SFWA grief over Burt's actions, too.

I just hope the SFWA board stands behind Burt until the current furor dies down and he can get back to work. Scribd still carries huge amounts of pirated content, and there are even worse sites out there that I won't mention. SFWA is in a good position to deal with these sites, and it would be a shame if these efforts were sidetracked by a vocal minority that doesn't particularly care if SFWA continues to exist at all.