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Monday, January 26, 2009

Author Conduct: A Slippery Slope to Insanity (Part One)

I'm not the first one to discuss this issue and most certainly not the most prominent to do so. In recent days/weeks/months there has been an (sort of) out pour of stupid authors/artists doing stupid, if not psychotic, things to other folks in similar fields. Both instances have floored me, in a way, not because I'm at all surprised (after the "entertaining" William Sanders fiasco I can't say I will ever be surprised in this field unless I find out that some of my favorite authors are actually white supremacists who eat non-white babies for breakfast), but because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But, since this post is about two entirely different incidences, I'll separate my arguments/rants/discussions into two separate posts. Here goes:

The Sciborg Sam/Erik Secker Fiasco
I'm about sick and tired of this sue-happy culture we live in. I get the need to sue people who cross the line and to punish them, but more often than not people cross the line, suing people for millions of dollars when a hundred thousand would do just fine. We've gotten to the point where lawsuits are done for profit on the side of the plaintiff, which to mean screams of an ethical problem, if not a moral one. And yes, free speech is often squashed in these suits (almost every time, actually), and yet the people who do the suing have absolutely no issue with that, usually stating that free speech is still alive and well as a way of navigating responsibility away from themselves (don't look at me, I'm the good guy--no, you're not).

Sciborg Sam is the latest in this attempt to silence free speech. Apparently Erik Secker recently posted a "review" (for lack of a better word) of this Sciborg Sam character's attempts at music (or whatever it is that this person thinks he or she is doing). The following horrible video was posted (which I will post here in hopes that I will get a similar treatment as Secker):

Then, Secker received a cease and desist letter telling him:
This letter is to inform you that your website is in violation of United States copyright laws.
There is an image of my artwork posted on it and a music video produced by my band and also text copied from my website. These were posted without permission or contract. Your website portrays my work in a negative way, which I believe may be libelous.
I'm sorry, what? Now, first off, this is just idiotic at best. For someone to claim that you are violating copyright laws and yet be so oblivious to them is like a racist who gets banned from the local pub for trying to kill black people claiming that everyone else is discriminating.

Now, Secker has done a good job laying out all the legal mumbo jumbo (that copyright does not protect you from negative or positive review, that one may use small portions of material for reviews or criticism with proper attribution, etc.), so if you want all that, go read the post. I'd like to chime in that Sciborg Sam clearly wasn't paying attention to Youtube, because allowing for his video to be embedded constitutes a willingness to have it used elsewhere (otherwise that option would be deleted). The same can be said about the ability to comment on the videos.

What stands out in all this is the fact that Sciborg Sam is threatening a lawsuit over something you can't technically sue somebody for. Secker's only crime is...wait, he didn't commit any crime. He posted a "review" or "criticism," using small snippets of text, embedding a video from a public video site, and using a picture from the same location for the same purposes. This is not illegal. If it was, then there would be no book reviews, no movie reviews, no nothing, because if you could legally sue people for criticizing your work, then nobody would be criticizing at all. We'd all have to figure out whether a movie is good on our own and then be careful about what we say in public, lest we be sued for imaginary libel.

This is a clear case of attempting to stifle free speech. Seckler never did anything other than speak his mind. His review was somewhat negative, which is perfectly acceptable. But Sciborg Sam doesn't seem to understand that. Libel is intentionally lying, to say something not true about someone else in a public forum. If the local newspaper wrote that I murdered children for fun, that would be libel. I have not, to my knowledge, murdered any children, and I doubt if I did that I did it for fun. If a local newspaper wrote that I have a habit of procrastinating, then that wouldn't be all that untrue. In fact, that would be 100% true, as I am procrastinating while writing this. I'd probably be pissed off about the comment, but there's nothing I can really do about it short of writing an nasty letter-to-the-editor.

This all leads to my discussion of Author Conduct (or Artist Conduct). Where do we draw the line in protecting one's intellectual property? Where do we draw the line on hurt feelings? Sciborg Sam may have been upset by those supposed mean words, but if he wanted nothing but positive comments, he wouldn't have put his stuff online in the first place. No artist should ever expect positive words on everything.

Tobias S. Buckell has received a mixture of comments on his work (good, bad, and neutral) and yet I have not seen him run around throwing a tantrum (he apparently likes driving off of icy roads into ditches, though--kidding Mr. Buckell!). But, you see, Buckell is a professional, as most people in the writing and artistic worlds are. He knows he's going to get criticism from people. He knows that not everyone will love his work or him. And in knowing this, he doesn't get upset when someone gives a negative opinion on something he has written. Sciborg Sam hasn't learned this lesson yet.

Writers and artists alike need to take a step back and realize that this sue-happy culture that we have created is dangerous. It's a threat not only to our ability to be artists (no matter the form), but to society in general. The more common and more profitable lawsuits become for the plaintiff, the more dangerous it will be for all of us to express ourselves. As soon as we begin to make it acceptable to sue people for disliking something one person wrote or created, then the entire notion of free speech will collapse along with freedom of expression. We lose what it means to be an artist or a writer or a musician.

And ignorant people running around pretending to be lawyers-in-the-know should be ashamed of themselves. Most people don't know enough about copyright law to be able to ignore Sciborg Sam. People will take him seriously. Just as Wikipedia largely misinforms the viewing public, so do people like Sciborg Sam. Sooner or later it will become commonplace for us to believe that one can sue for the same reasons Sciborg Sam is threatening Erik Secker. This is dangerous and frightening. We live in an ignorant society. Let's not make it any worse.

And that is all! Comments welcome.

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  1. Wow - I'm forever amazed at the lengths to which some people will go to get a sense of vindication, in situations like these.
    Still, the reaction wasn't unprovoked, was it? I don't suppose a person is OBLIGATED to be constructive when critiquing others, nor am I suggested that the majority of critics I've come across out there, endeavor to be as fair minded and helpful as possible in both their positive and negative assessments of the works they review.
    In all fairness though, I'm not oblivious to that "NONconstructive negative critic" culture that seems to focus their efforts on seeing just how badly they can slam another person for their earnest endeavors.
    Sadly though, one can never really seem to escape those who possibly for the sake of their own egos (?), will go to any lengths to be as damaging as possible.
    Not everyone who puts their work "out there" is going to produce some stellar masterpiece. Good Lord, on any given day - I can't say for sure that anything I turn out isn't absolute rubbish. Still, it turns my stomach - the idea that that this pervasive display of nastiness should not only be accepted as normalcy but that it should be tolerated, lauded even. Yeah, yeah - "free speech" - I get it. That doesn't miraculously absolve us of all human considerations, though - does it?
    I don't know this particular individual mentioned in your post, nor was I familiar with his reviews prior the mention in this post - I have no clue if the "NONconstructive negative criticism" mentioned above is this person's modus operandi, nor am I inclined to find out at this time.
    I'm sure my reaction would not be as extreme as this hapless author's/performer's. In all honesty though, my nose would probably be a bit out of joint, after reading.

  2. tonya1:56 PM


    The following line:
    ...nor am I suggested that the majority of critics I've come across out there, endeavor to be as fair minded and helpful as possible...

    Should be:
    nor am I suggested that the majority of critics I've come across out there, DON'T endeavor to be as fair minded and helpful as possible

    (What a difference a single word can make!)

  3. The thing is, if you don't want to be criticized for your work, don't put it out there to be seen. That's part of the business of art. I don't believe in patting people on the back and saying "good job" instead of being honest. If something sucks, then I'm going to say so, or try to.

    The person who Sciborg Sam sent that notice to did not approach the critique from an exceedingly negative perspective. It was not doing anything other that displaying honesty.

  4. No, no - by no means I'm suggesting that people's work should not be critiqued. I prefer honesty above empty platitudes any day.

    It's easy to say that one shouldn't put their work out their if they don't want it torn apart by others. I feel that's more a sad commentary on human nature than the manner in which people do or don't have to go about doing something though.

    I just think that we all should be accountable for the way in which we go about doing these things. At no time should it be acceptable to be abusive in our treatment of others because it's just what's done in the industry today.

    Writers, more than anyone else know that the whole "sticks and stones" philosophy is total rubbish. We know the damage that words can do. Whether people want to admit it or not - we are all hurt by damaging things, regardless of whether or not it's commonplace in the world. In fact, the day I would no longer be affected by hurtful things would be the day I know that I should stop writing.

    Even then, I personally would not strike out against someone for that but the feeling is there, whether I would act on it or not.

    We could both go on and on about this until the end of time, though so let's agree to disagree. Our views, I think - originate from two completely alien perspectives. I doubt that will ever change.

  5. "I just think that we all should be accountable for the way in which we go about doing these things. At no time should it be acceptable to be abusive in our treatment of others because it's just what's done in the industry today."

    No, but the problem is that when you start pulling punches you set a new line that shouldn't be crossed and it's only a matter of time before that line is moved again because people can't handle the honest friendly critiques, etc. Art is not a rosy business and shouldn't be. There are far too many hacks and morons out there that think they are the greatest thing in the world, when in reality they aren't and should definitely do something else. True artists are those that can survive brutal critique.
    While we shouldn't do things out of spite, being completely honest about a work, even in saying that it is utter garbage, is the right when appropriate. I don't believe in giving poor reviews because we don't like people or feel that person needs to be brought down a notch, but we shouldn't pull punches just because it might hurt someone's feelings. If something is terrible, then it's terrible and we should feel free to say so and why. If an artist cannot handle that critique, it isn't mine or your fault or anyone's fault. This is part of the business. It's part of accepting rejection. You cannot please everyone and if you can't grow from what others find to be weaknesses, then perhaps art isn't where someone should be.

    "Even then, I personally would not strike out against someone for that but the feeling is there, whether I would act on it or not."

    Again, the issue I posted about isn't about someone going out of their way to say something really hurtful. This wasn't a spiteful critique, and was hardly a critique at all. The post was simply a short, somewhat negative opinion of the quality of an individuals work. I've read worse things elsewhere that haven't crossed the line. This Sciborg Sam person simply couldn't handle the criticism and attempting to sue someone over it is absurd for more reasons than just legal. There was no attempt to critique Sciborg Sam out of spite or to intentionally misrepresent Sciborg Sam. It was an opinion piece, nothing more. Without criticism literature and art in general would not have progressed at all. Criticism, good and bad, is an important part of the artistic medium.