Scott Turow and the Theft of Creativity

“If the piracy of intellectual property is allowed to continue to grow… we will not hear new voices, authors in mid-career will be stalled, and our cultural conversation will become stifled.”

So said bestselling author Scott Turow in testimony this morning before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. (His written testimony is here.) I went to the hearing to learn how Congress plans to target the proliferation of offshore web sites profiting from the illegal access to creative works, from Mr. Turow’s novels to music, movies, video games, photographs and any other creative work that can be converted into ones and zeroes. My visit came a few days after a trip to see the original U.S. Constitution, but I’ll save that anecdote for the end of this post.

U.S. Capitol courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

How are these criminal web sites in China, Russia, Belarus and other countries making money? As Mr. Turow and others noted, they are facilitated by legitimate companies — Internet service providers, domain name registrars and registers, online ad brokers, financial transaction firms, and search engines — conducting business with them.

Mr. Turow, himself a practicing attorney and former federal prosecutor, shared an experience with his latest novel, Innocent. Within the first week of publication, he said, he and his publisher found himself playing “whack-a-mole” with hundreds of pirate sites.

“I came here today with my iPad,” Mr. Turow said, holding it up to the committee. “I enjoy the benefits of the digital revolution. But it brings enormous peril, particularly for authors.”

“My concern is not to protect the interests of bestselling authors,” said Mr. Turow, speaking as president of The Author’s Guild. “My concerns instead are for the sake of our literary culture. ”

He argued that if the ability of editors to work with new authors is diminished, if the ability of publishers to act as “venture capitalists” by providing advances to authors so they can write books and survive during the long publishing cycle, we all will suffer. Citing his experience as a federal prosecutor pursuing drug lords, he said success occurred when they learned to “follow the trail of money” involving banks and other financial firms facilitating criminal activity.

Mr. Turow focused on the traditional publishing market, but piracy harms self-published authors as well. The principle of copyright as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is that you as the creator get to decide what to do with your creative output. You can give it away. You can give away some in order to help sell others, a very common approach among many of my self-published author friends. (And often an effective one.) The problems with piracy are that (1) someone decides that they will “share” your work without your input, and (2) very often they profit from your labor, without you profiting yourself.

A witness from Rosetta Stone, CEO Tom Adams, said his company combats more than 1,000 web sites pretending to be selling its software. Customers find these sites through search engines such as Google, assume they’re legitimate, buy faulty counterfeit software with their Visa or MasterCard, then call Rosetta Stone to complain after suffering with shoddy software. Rosetta Stone “is under attack by pirates and counterfeiters… The amount of criminal activity is astounding.”

Witnesses from GoDaddy.com, Verizon and Visa all acknowledged the problem of illegal theft online is massive and growing. All three are working with copyright owners to stop cooperating with so-called “rogue” web sites. But they also acknowledged that it would be easier to act if they could do so with some legal liability protection, by responding to court orders pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Late last year the Senate Judiciary Committee passed 19-0 bipartisan legislation sponsored by the chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), that would authorize the Justice Department to take exactly that action. The Congress ended before more action could be taken, but Leahy and numerous others promised a new bill is on its way, and encouraged everyone interested to offer their thoughts.

Hopefully someone from Google watched the Senate’s live stream of the hearing and will share their thoughts with Senator Leahy and his committee colleagues. Google declined an invitation to testify, a move that seemed to anger Senator Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, and others on the committee. Of course, the search engine giant pretty much ignores complaints by individual creatives suffering massive piracy, including independent filmmaker Ellen Seidler and comic book author/illustrator Colleen Doran. Google not only promotes these illegal sites in search results, it also sells many of the ads on these sites.

But my goal here is not to take shots at Google. That’s too easy. I seek to point out that there is tremendous unanimity across political parties in Washington that something has to be done to protect the rights and interests of creatives and their distribution partners. Both Chairman Leahy and the Republican Ranking Member of the Committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), praised the bipartisan consensus on this issue. “When people get along [in D.C.], it’s not very well noticed by the press,” Senator Grassley said, but of course things that are exceedingly rare are hard to spot by anybody.

“Let me be clear,” Chairman Leahy said. “The problem of online infringement is real, it’s substantial, it harms our economy, it costs us jobs, with losses of billions of dollars a year, and thousands of lost jobs… It’s a staggering number, and it’s growing.”

“The Internet needs to be free and open,” Chairman Leahy added, “but not lawless.” The good news from the hearing is that the testimony from other witnesses concurred with that view. The GoDaddy.com witness, General Counsel Christine Jones, repeatedly said that if a company like hers doesn’t cooperate with law enforcement and copyright owners, “there should be consequences.” She acknowledged that there are some out there on the interwebs who celebrate cyberspace as a refuge from rules and regulations, but made clear that position is not her personal view nor that of her company.

The day before the hearing, Mr. Turow joined with Paul Aiken and James Shapiro in an editorial in The New York Times titled “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?” They wrote that Shakespeare and his peers were able to pursue their craft because of a clever innovation in East London — walls around theaters permitting a charge of a penny to go see a play. “Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.”

U.S. Constitution courtesy of U.S. Archives (page 2, featuring the Progress Clause)

In today’s world, the authors wrote, some Internet users, web entrepreneurs and “a handful of law professors” believe that the rights of creators are a “relic.” “It’s a seductive thought,” they wrote, “but it ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.”

I am a creative. I write, give some of it away (like on this blog), and try to sell some of it. As a full-time freelance writer, my words are my sole source of income. I would be over the moon to ever achieve a level of sales anywhere close to the talented Mr. Turow. But I love the fact that society and the law respects my efforts sufficiently to give me rights to my own creativity.

On Saturday my wife and I went into downtown D.C. We had a pre-Valentine’s lunch at a fun restaurant called Cuba Libre (loved their “Batata con Camarones”), then walked south a few blocks to the National Archives. After about an hour in line, we stood in front of the U.S. Constitution. Fortunately, unlike the Declaration of Independence, its ink has not faded into obscurity. I was able to read clearly this line from Article 1, Section 8, the section empowering Congress…

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

It’s been more than 220 years since that line was woven into the fabric of our lawful society. The principle behind it dates much further back, to the dawn of the printing press in the 1400s. We are now in an exciting 21st Century digtal world, but the principle remains as true today as it ever has.

As a creative I am grateful.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

13 Responses to “Scott Turow and the Theft of Creativity”

  1. Thanks for this article, Patrick. First and foremost, I want to acknowledge your commitment to making a difference in the rights of ALL artists (not only writers). Your passion really sings through in this article.

    I am a real believer in the power of a creative person having rights to their work. How else will they make a living? As noted in the article, once theaters started charging admission, a crop of stellar playwrites emerged. As you know – that was no accident!

    I have had a couple of small run ins with copyright infringement myself. Nothing too serious, but enough to make me realize there is a real issue. Add that to the horror stories I have heard from friends and collegues and I know there is a serious issue out there.

    While I see the value in having them, I fear that Google images and similar sites give people the feeling they can use posted images at will without causing harm. In fact, it can be devastating. A visual artist depends on being able to sell the rights to their work to make an income. They also depend on being able to control what their images are associated with. For example, could you imagine if an artist with strong Christian faith had their work associated with devil worship? Stranger things have happened.

    As the former Executive Director of the Copyright Alliance of America, I feel you are the authority on this issue, so I will let you have the floor back now. 🙂

    • Amy, thanks for this great comment. If more people were able to meet and get to know creatives like you, they’d be more understanding of why we need to respect the rights of creatives.

  2. God Bless you, Scott. Peace.
    Jimmy

  3. Hmm, I’d say if the only way so called artist only can stay competitive is by being guarded by guns and police then perhaps their work isn’t that much valuable to a free society after all.

    Would you dare to try to public your work under one of Creative Common (or any other open collaboration) licenses like Cory Doctorow and many like him do?

    Nah, I don’t think so: it is easier for you to lobby for legal protection of you legal “rights”, of course.

    I wonder if this comment will be posted or there’s a case of intestine deficit?

    • Thank you for visiting, Cos. I did post it, despite it being anonymous (commenters on this site usually identify themselves), lacking in proper grammar, and being a bit off point (Cory both gives away and charges for work, which I said in the post itself was an option for anyone who wishes it.)

      Since you were kind enough to visit, I invite you to visit another site, http://www.icivility.com , which has some thoughts on netiquette for comments on blogs.

  4. “If the piracy of intellectual property is allowed to continue to grow… we will not hear new voices, authors in mid-career will be stalled, and our cultural conversation will become stifled.”

    Mr. Turow’s argument is completely false. Piracy is at an all time high and growing exponentially and there are more new voices than ever before. There are more people creating music, writing books, making films etc than ever before. Why? Because the creative process is getting easier through technology. Technology is allowing more people to create and promote their creations more freely. As long as humans live on this earth, you will not stop the creative process.

    As usual, the establishment music, film, publishing industry people want their cake and eat it too. They want the freedom to distribute their product cheap and enjoy the perks of lower costs, faster distribution and the freedom to leak their product to promote their ends without suffering any of the consequences that all of this entails.

    As a DJ, musician, remixer and producer, I can understand the frustration and anger over piracy but the establishment still doesn’t get it. They want the profits and status of the “good ‘ol days” when they made huge profits at the expense of the creative artists and customers but get the lower costs and promotion and distribution freedoms the internet offers. The world doesn’t work that way. These people always want their artists, authors, filmakers etc. (the creative people) and customers to make the sacrifices while they continue on with business as usual. THEY need to adapt, NOT everyone else. Creators and customers have suffered enough at the hands of these greedy people.

    • Thank you for visiting, “averagejoe” (again, I’m not used to getting anonymous comments on this blog). I’ve had the privilege of meeting many talented DJs and remixers over the years, and nearly all have a negative view of copyright. I make a living thanks to copyright, but to them copyright is an obstacle to their creative pursuit of making use of — and hopefully monetizing — the creative output of others.

      Your perspective of copyright is one easily embraced by a creative who views copyright as thwarting their creativity and ability to support themselves.

      And you reflect a bias many have against copyright “industry people.” That is fine, but understand that I am a creative person who chooses at times to associate my rights with publishers, only signing terms I find acceptable, and benefiting from what they bring, from editing to assistance with distribution and marketing. That is my choice, and I would like to continue to have that choice. They are greedy, but so am I. I want as big a slice of pie as I can get for my creativity. Apologies for being a capitalist!🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] few days before, Patrick blogged about his arrival in DC, and discussed an excellent article by Authors Guild President Scott Turow. The day before the […]

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