Thursday, June 19, 2014

Can I (Successfully) Be Sued for My Scathing, Cruel, Factually Misleading (but Very Witty) Review of Your Book?

In a television appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, the novelist Mary McCarthy was asked which writers she regarded as overrated. McCarthy singled out the playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman as "a bad writer, a dishonest writer," and went on to say "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

As Franklin Foer tells the story, "when Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed. By the time her assistant arrived for work the next morning, Hellman had called her lawyer, and set in motion a $2.25 million libel suit against McCarthy."

Did Hellman have a legal leg to stand on? I'll come back to that question in a minute.

There's no doubt that a scathing take-down of a book or movie or other work of art can provide a wicked source of pleasure to both the reviewer and her readers. Some deliciously disapproving book reviews may be found in this collection of pans, this one, this one (focusing on harsh assessments of literary classics), and this one (featuring caustic reviews by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani). At least two books have chronicled the history of bookish slam pieces: The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem and Rotten Reviews Redux. And there is even a Hatchet Job of the Year award for the "best" worst review.

But can a negative review of a book or film or other creative work go too far and give rise to a successful legal claim against the reviewer? The answer: yes, but (thank heavens) rarely. To make sure your reviews don't plunge you into legal hot water, you should bear in mind the sometimes fuzzy line between constitutionally protected opinion and legally actionable libel.

By way of background, libel is defined as a false and defamatory statement of FACT about a living person or a business entity or product that causes harm to reputation. From the definition, it follows that: (1) you can't libel the dead; and (2) truth is an absolute defense to a libel claim. (If it ain’t false, it ain’t libel.)  It also follows from the definition that a statement cannot form the basis for a viable libel claim unless it can reasonably be interpreted as an assertion of a fact. That's where the crucial distinction between fact and opinion comes into play.

In Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., the Supreme Court identified two general categories of "opinion," which are protected by the First Amendment. The first category consists of statements that are not "provable as false" by objective evidence. For example, when a magazine described a store as "trashy," a federal appeals court held that the word "trashy" is "quintessentially subjective," a "chameleon that continuously changes colors and shades of meaning" and "admits of numerous interpretations"; "we can imagine no objective evidence that might conclusively prove or disprove it." Therefore, the judges found that, in context, the word "trashy" was pure opinion and could not support a libel claim.

A second category of opinion identified in Milkovich is "loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language which would negate the impression that the writer was seriously" stating an actual fact. Many instances of rude name-calling fall into this category, including characterizations such as "stupid son of a bitch," "idiot," "jerk," "disgrace to the species," and a personal favorite, "creepazoid attorney." Barbed jokes or satire often qualify as protected opinion, for the same reasons.

Regrettably, the distinction between fact and opinion can be elusive. It is blurriest when (1) you mix negative opinions with negative statements of fact, or (2) you express opinions that imply the existence of highly negative facts without stating them. (An example of the latter: saying "I believe Mark Fowler is a con artist" without providing facts that make it clear whether you are accusing me of committing criminally fraudulent acts or merely spouting self-serving bull.)

And you should keep in mind that merely labeling something an "opinion" doesn't necessarily make it so in the eyes of the law; for example, it would be ill-advised to say "In my opinion, he killed his father and married his mother," unless you have the facts to back it up.

Now let's apply these principles to an actual review.  Susan Cohen, writing in the Charleston City Paper in 2008, said of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo “this is easily one of the worst books I have ever read, and remember I’ve read John Grisham.” Unflattering? Yes, very. Libelous? No way. Stieg Larsson certainly didn’t have a claim for libel. He died in 2004, years before the review was published. But neither did John Grisham, who was -- and is -- very much alive. A purely aesthetic judgment about Grisham's and Larsson's works ("one of the worst I've ever read") simply isn’t capable of being proven true or false. Therefore that statement shouldn't qualify as actionable libel no matter how damning the opinion may be. As one court explained, "While a bad review necessarily has the effect of injuring an author's reputation to some extent -- sometimes to a devastating extent -- criticism's long and impressive pedigree persuades us that, while a critic's latitude is not unlimited, he or she must be given the 'breathing space' appropriate to the genre." As far as I know, Mr. Grisham (who practiced law for a decade) did not threaten legal action against Ms. Cohen -- perhaps because he has a sense of humor, a thick skin, and/or a healthy appreciation of the First Amendment.

Next, let's consider a closer question. In a review of the book Interference about the influence of organized crime in football, a reviewer for The New York Times wrote, among other uncomplimentary statements, that "there is too much sloppy journalism to trust the bulk of this book’s 512 pages.” The author of the book, Dan Moldea, sued. Few libel cases have taken as many twists and turns. The district court found that the challenged statements were either substantially true or non-actionable opinion.  But the appeals court initially disagreed and found, among other things, that "the review attacks Moldea's competence as a practitioner of his chosen profession." As a result, the court concluded that some statements in the book review might be libelous, if they were proven to be untrue.

Judge Mikva wrote an eloquent dissent, arguing that to charge a writer with "too much sloppy journalism" is not equivalent to saying that a brain surgeon has "clumsy hands."
The reviewing of books is an art form almost as old as civilization. The more important the book, the more controversial the reviews. Courts should be most hesitant to assume an arbiter's role in this most delicate area of First Amendment speech. While the designation of speech as a "book review" should not automatically exempt it from the libel laws, any more than the "opinion" label enshrines other speech, the "sloppiness" of the reviewer's work should be left to the readers to determine, rather than for judges or juries to ordain.
Then, surprisingly and thankfully, the judge who had written the majority opinion for the appeals court reconsidered and totally reversed his position, noting that he had:
failed to take sufficient account of the fact that the statements at issue appeared in the context of a book review, a genre in which readers expect to find spirited critiques of literary works that they understand to be the reviewer's description and assessment of texts that are capable of a number of possible rational interpretations.
The chastened Moldea court then went on to prescribe a new and influential standard for distinguishing opinion from libelous statements of fact in the context of reviews.
The proper analysis would make commentary actionable only when the interpretations are unsupportable by reference to the written work. . . . This "supportable interpretation" standard provides that a critic's interpretation must be rationally supportable by reference to the actual text he or she is evaluating, and thus would not immunize situations analogous to that presented in Milkovich [the Supreme Court case mentioned above] in which a writer launches a personal attack, rather than interpreting a book. This standard also establishes boundaries even for textual interpretation. A critic's statement must be a rational assessment or account of something the reviewer can point to in the text, or omitted from the text, being critiqued. For instance, if the Times review stated that Interference was a terrible book because it asserted that African-Americans make poor football coaches, that reading would be "unsupportable by reference to the written work," because nothing in Moldea's book even hints at this notion. In such a case, the usual inquiries as to libel would apply: a jury could determine that the review falsely characterized Interference, thereby libeling its author by portraying him as a racist (assuming the other elements of the case could be proved).
Applying its newly minted "supportable interpretation" standard, the appeals court found that all of the statements in the review of Interference were either substantially true statements of fact or were opinions "supportable by reference to the written work," and therefore not libelous.

Don’t let me make you paranoid. Libel actions arising out of book or movie reviews are few and far between. How many merciless book reviews have been published in, say, the last thirty years?  Tens of thousands?  More?  But only a relative handful have given rise to lawsuits. And almost none have ultimately resulted in judgments against the reviewers or their publishers.

But don’t let me make you UNparanoid either. Defamation lawsuits involving unflattering book or film reviews are rare, but not rare enough for you to let down your guard. For example, in Stuart v. Gambling Times, the plaintiff-author sued over a review calling his book about gambling "the #1 fraud ever perpetrated upon the gambling reader" -- a statement that was held to be protected opinion. True crime writer Ann Rule recently sued the Seattle Weekly (thus far unsuccessfully) over an article that critiqued her book Heart Full of Lies; Rule contended that the article contained "innumerable inaccuracies and untruths" about her reporting. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson threatened suit over a negative review of his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, but he ultimately chose not to litigate. In England, author Chris McGrath did file suit against an Amazon reviewer (as well as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) for unfavorable comments about his book.  The litigation turned out to be an expensive mistake. A publisher sued a Canadian librarian for an unflattering blog post contending, among other things, that the publisher's works were "second class scholarship." A disturbing criminal proceeding in France against the editor of book review website was dismissed. But the Daily Telegraph in London was ordered to pay $100,000 over a book review that a judge found to be "spiteful" and to contain serious factual errors.  And libel litigation over negative reviews of other types of products and services is booming.

So what steps can you take to protect yourself from a libel claim when you write a review?

1. In reviewing works of fiction or dramatic films or works of visual art, you will often be making aesthetic judgments, which will generally qualify as protected pure opinion. However, when you write about non-fiction or documentaries, you may be more likely to make factual assertions, which could be proven true or false. When making factual claims, protect yourself by being the best and most responsible sort of journalist, carefully checking your sources. Be especially cautious when you are stating or implying that someone has committed a crime, acted unprofessionally, unethically, or incompetently, abused controlled substances, gone bankrupt, or is unchaste. (Interestingly, legal views of what constitutes an actionable accusation of unchastity are slowly changing, as illustrated by this case involving a sex tape allegation.) Also be extra cautious if you state or imply that a product is defective or dangerous.

2. As the great Jan Harayda puts it, "review the book, not the author." For example, it’s one thing to say that a book contains factual misstatements (assuming that you're right and the author is wrong). It’s another to say that the author “distorts” the facts – that’s a definite yellow light, trending away from a review of the text and toward an attack on the author. And you may well be picking a fight if you say that the author knowingly “lies.” That's not to say that you can't hold and express highly negative opinions about the character of a writer, but when you publish them, you are taking on a different level of risk. Tread carefully.  If you're going to be caustic and cruel, make sure your facts are faultless.

3. Don't use a review (or any blog posting) as a vehicle for settling scores. Although statements made out of spite or ill-will are not actionable for that reason alone, think twice before reviewing the work of author against whom you bear a personal grudge.

4. Avoid using inflammatory words just for the sake of being colorful or shocking. Words like racist, Nazi, bigot, blackmail, bribe, cult, scam, liar, dishonest, incompetent, quack:  all might conceivably qualify as statements of opinion – in the right context.  However, in a different context, those same words might be deemed disparaging statements of fact. Realize that hot-button words give rise to a disproportionate number of libel claims.  Never use such words loosely.

5. Keeping in mind the "supportable interpretation" standard in Moldea, bolster your criticisms with specific, accurate references to the text on which you base your opinions.

6. If you do receive a complaint letter from someone who implies he might take legal action, speak to a lawyer right away.

7. If you make a serious mistake, in some states -- but not New York -- you can protect yourself against certain types of damage claims by making a prominent retraction. It is, in fact, almost always a good idea -- ethically, legally, and interpersonally -- to correct the record. However, you would be well-advised to consult with an attorney for assistance in framing a correction, particularly if you are being threatened with legal action.

8. Consider publishing an offended person’s response. Often what a complainant wants most of all is to tell her side of the story.

9. Remember that, if you are publishing reviews on your own blog or even on Amazon or barnesandnoble.com, you performing on a high wire with a potentially large audience and no safety net. You don’t have editors or fact checkers reading your work before you post it on the web.  You don’t have a well-healed news organization standing behind you – with lawyers ready to vindicate your rights and insurance to pay the lawyers for doing so. So you must act as your own editor, ensuring that you have your facts straight and that you aren't sacrificing fairness for the sake of snark.

Lawsuits can be scary and expensive, even when you win a smashing early victory. In most states (except a few with strong anti-SLAPP laws), a prevailing libel defendant still has to pay her own attorneys' fees. But if you are careful and professional, and if you know something about the law of libel, it’s very unlikely that you will ever be sued for any of your reviews.

But what about Lillian Hellman's case against Mary McCarthy? Amazingly, a New York court declined to find that McCarthy's statement was a simple joke or protected opinion. (Most libel lawyers think the judge was wrong.) The case dragged on for five years until Hellman died and the lawsuit was dropped. As Foer reports, McCarthy was disappointed; she told The New York Times that “I’m absolutely unregenerate ... I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.”

Other resources:  Here is a blog posting about lawsuits arising out of bad reviews on Yelp. And here is a piece about "how not to get sued when reviewing" products online.  As this New York Times article explains, strong anti-SLAPP statutes in some states can sometimes be helpful to posters who get sued for statements of protected opinion, but many states have weak laws or no anti-SLAPP laws at all.  For more about the law of libel, please see these earlier posts.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Any Damn Fool Can Be Accurate -- and Dull": Can I Be Liable to My Readers for Lying About Myself?

In 1929, actress Joan Lowell published a memoir of her childhood entitled The Cradle of the Deep. According to The Los Angeles Times, Lowell reported how her sea-captain father had raised her on a trading ship, the Minnie A. Caine, until she was 17.  She learned her first swear words at age two, witnessed a man being eaten alive by a shark at age 16, personally harpooned a whale, and occasionally played strip poker with the all-male crew.  When the ship caught fire off Australia, Lowell managed to swim three miles to safety with a kitten clinging to her back. Cradle of the Deep was a Book-of-the- Month Club selection, sold more than 100,000 copies, and was slated to be adapted into a talking movie produced by D.W. Griffith.  But then Lowell's childhood neighbors spoiled the fun and revealed to the press that her story was almost entirely bilge water.  Although Lowell's father was, in fact, a sea captain, Lowell herself had spent only a few months at sea and had lived most of her youth high-and-dry in Berkeley, California. When reporters questioned her about the factual "inconsistencies," Lowell explained that a writer's first duty is to tell a good story. "Any damn fool can be accurate -- and dull," she said. The Book-of-the-Month Club offered refunds to book buyers, but took no legal action against Lowell. There's more about Lowell and a great picture here.

If Joan Lowell had published her "memoir" today, she would have run a high risk of being sued by class action lawyers purporting to represent readers duped by her deception. Make no mistake, if you lie about yourself in your memoirs, you are courting legal liability to your publisher, as well as public disgrace if you are discovered.  But how likely are faux memoirists to be found liable to their readers?  And should the courts entertain duped readers' claims at all?  Here are some thoughts:

1.  There is a long and colorful history of writers telling bald-faced lies about themselves in memoirs and autobiographies.  An amusing Wikipedia article describes 32 instances of "fake memoirs" in which "a wholly or partially fabricated autobiography, memoir, or journal of an individual is presented as fact."  And a few years ago The New York Times published an article headlined "A Family Tree of Literary Fakers," profiling, among others, Margaret Seltzer, author under the pseudonym Margaret Jones of a largely fabricated gang memoir, Love and ConsequencesJ.T. LeRoy, who wrote two "memoirs" before New York Magazine revealed that LeRoy's life was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Laura Albert; and Binjamin Wilkomirski who wrote Fragments, a memoir of his boyhood in a concentration camp -- a story marred in the minds of some readers by the fact that the author was later revealed to have "spent the war in relative comfort in Switzerland."  But my favorite memoir controversy revolves around Lillian Hellman's Pentimento, a book that I read with pleasure years ago and which is filled with literary gossip and vinegary anecdotes.  Yet to this day, it has never been clear whether Hellman really smuggled $50,000 in a fur hat to help the anti-Nazi resistance (a story from Pentimento that was made into the movie Julia) or merely inserted herself into the life story of Muriel Gardiner Buttinger -- a possibility discussed in this fascinating post.  To my knowledge, no reader ever sued Hellman, although her veracity was very much at issue in the long-running libel case she brought against the novelist Mary McCarthy.

2.  Of course, anyone can sue anybody for just about anything under our legal system, but, while there are doubtless factual distortions in many memoirs and autobiographies, lawsuits by readers against authors for alleged false accounts of their own lives are rare.  (Only two prior to 2011-- according to this Boston Globe blog post.) Of course,when you make false (and defamatory) statements about others, you are cruising for a libel lawsuit (as discussed in these past RightsofWriters posts), but only a very few lawsuits on behalf of readers against memoirists or autobiographers for lying about themselves have been "successful" (by some definition of success) for the plaintiff readers -- or even for their lawyers.  Two reasons: (a) it is difficult to articulate how a false memoir materially "damages" a reader; and (b) ordinarily no one reader has a financial stake exceeding the cost of the book and therefore has no incentive to sue.  Indeed, I do not know of a single false memoirs case, brought on behalf of readers, that has resulted in a judgment on the merits.  (If you know of one, please email me.)  The cases I've read about have all been settled (like most civil lawsuits) or eventually withdrawn.  So it remains to be seen whether a case of this kind is ultimately winnable on the law.

3.  Because an individual reader doesn't have a sufficient economic incentive to file a lawsuit, the legal threat to the faux memoirist generally takes the form of a class action lawsuit -- i.e., lawyers who are seeking to represent the interests of an entire class of readers who, like a few specifically named plaintiffs, were duped into buying a work that was fictionalized in some respects when they believed, at the time of purchase, that it was true.  As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, there has been a proliferation of putative class actions against authors this year: i.e., a total of three lawsuits -- two of which involved the same book.  (I use the term "putative" because a case is not a full-fledged class action unless and until a judge "certifies" the class.)

4.  From the lawyers' point of view, the most successful "duped readers" lawsuit arose from James Frey's memoir of alcohol and drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces.  Frey famously admitted to Oprah that he had greatly exaggerated details of his personal experience, claiming, for example, to have been jailed for 87 days, when, in fact, he had been detained by police for only a few hours.  Thirteen class action lawsuits were filed against Frey and his publisher, Random House; the cases were eventually consolidated and settled in 2007 with the payment of $738,000 in attorneys' fees, and the promise of a refund of the book price to any reader who claimed one.  But how much do readers really care about false memoir kerfuffles?  As reported by DearAuthor.com only 1,729 readers bothered to submit a refund claim, despite the fact that Random House spent $432,000 advertising and administering the settlement.  Frey's book sold over 5,000,000 copies, so 1,729 claims represents a little more than 3/100ths of 1 percent of total readers.  Not exactly a grassroots readers' revolt.  For an argument that Frey's and Random House's conduct should not have resulted in any legal liability (because Frey's book served its intended purpose -- providing enjoyable reading), see "A Million Little Maybes," by Samantha Katze.

5. Earlier this year, author Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes challenged the truthfulness of key anecdotes in the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson.  Although Mortenson has publicly defended the book as a compressed version of actual events, two would-be class action lawsuits were filed against him.  Here is the complaint in an Illinois action in which a plaintiff-reader alleged violations of a consumer deception statute, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment.  The Illinois case was later withdrawn and the claim consolidated with another lawsuit in Montana (complaint here) which made certain additional claims that Mortenson's alleged falsehoods duped some people into making contributions to a charity Mortenson helped to promote.  Mortenseon recently moved to dismiss the complaint (AP's description here), and there may soon be more news about the case.

6.  Also this year, a would-be class action was filed against former President Jimmy Carter in connection with his memoir/history/polemic Palestine: Peace Not Apartheit.  The legal claims resembled those in the Frey lawsuit: breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violation of a consumer fraud statute, with the addition of common law claims for fraud and negligent misrepresentation.  Copy of the complaint here.  Most of the statements about which the plaintiffs complained concern alleged misdescriptions of events in the Middle East, not of Carter's own life, and, as such, raise a set of concerns that are different from Frey's book, including the constitutional protections for political opinion.   Mere factual mistakes seldom form the basis for successful claims against writers or publishers, as discussed in a prior post: "Can I Be Liable for Publishing Mistaken Information?"  Plaintiffs sought to overcome this obstacle by alleging that President Carter had intentionally misstated the facts.  Last I heard, however, plaintiffs had voluntarily dismissed the complaint.  

7.  Lawyer and writer Helen Gunnarson (who tweets as @HelenGunnar) inspired this meditation on faux memoirs, contacting me a few weeks ago about an article she was writing on the Mortenson case.  As I told Helen, and as you have probably inferred, I am skeptical about the wisdom of imposing legal liability on writers for lying to their readers.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't think memoirists should just make things up, without at least clearly disclosing their modi operandi to their readers.  However, I believe fabrication is primarily an ethical issue, not one for the courts.  I largely share the views expressed in this Los Angeles Times post that lawsuits against memoirists are "silly."


8.  Helen told me an anecdote about memoirist Mary Karr deciding not to write about an event that she vividly recalled because friends convinced her it could not have happened the way she remembered it.  As Karr has flatly said, “I try not to write anything not true.” That worthy sentiment strikes me as the ethical pole star of memoir writing, but as memoirist William Loizeaux observes in this article, "remembering is always a tricky business."  Loizeaux insists that "The line that should be most closely tended is the line of trust between writer and reader."  The farther that the memoirist departs from factual certainty, the greater the ethical duty on the memoirist to signal clearly to his readers that they are entering the realm of speculation or invention.  Loizeaux again:
when a memoirist writes, "we must have wept, being a family of inveterate weepers," we understand that a lachrymose scene to follow is informed imagination. These words are from Mary Karr's Liars' Club, which attempts to establish trust by letting the reader know how much truth is being told.
9.  Good intentions aside, I assume that virtually all memoirs and autobiographies are littered with falsehoods.  Most inaccuracies are probably inadvertent, arising from the fallibilities of human perception and memory.  But some varieties of falsehood are, I suggest, inherent in the modern craft of memoir.  As a lawyer, I am repeatedly struck by the inability of witnesses, who are sworn to tell the truth and who believe they are telling the truth, to accurately repeat conversations that occurred only a few months before their testimony.  As a result, I have no faith whatsoever that any dialogue recorded in a memoir is “true” in any literal sense.  Similarly, in light of the repeatedly demonstrated fallibility of eyewitness testimony, there is little reason to believe that the proliferation of physical details that give memoir its verisimilitude are genuine.  The dialogue and details in a memoir are, at best, psychological truths.  As one blogger explains, there are at least three conflicting varieties of truth competing for the allegiance of the memoirist ("the facts as they are, the facts as I see them, and the facts as I feel them"); he goes on to suggest that James Frey, Greg Mortensen, and David Oliver Relin (Mortenson's co-author) were only trying "to get us to feel their emotional truths a little too much.” Well maybe.  I am more inclined to agree with Brian Hale, a professor at Ohio State University, who told The Christian Scientist Monitor:  "The memoir is a strange kind of performance.  It's halfway between fiction and testimony . . . Anybody in his right mind knows that a memoir is unreliable." Yes, there is a difference between reporting mistaken memories about our lives and willfully lying about our lives, but do we really want legal liability to readers to turn on that difference?  Should Joan Lowell have been liable to her readers for her tall tales?  I don't think so. 

10.  Again, this is not to say that lying in memoirs is -- or should be -- free of legal consequences. For example, if you lie in your memoirs, you are likely in breach of a warranty in your publishing agreement.  The standard Simon & Schuster contract contains a promise that "if the [author's work] is not a work of fiction, all statements in the [author's work] asserted as facts are true or based upon reasonable research for accuracy." A breach of that warranty may not give the publisher a direct claim against its author for lying, but it does give the publisher the right to have the author indemnify the publisher for all losses it sustains as a result of claims against it arising from the authors' lies.  If an author breaches her promise to tell the truth, and the publisher is damaged as a result (e.g., is sued and/or obliged to provide refunds), the warranty may oblige the author to cover the publisher’s liability and attorneys’ fees.  I do not know whether Random House sought repayment from James Frey in connection with the class action settlement payments or the cost of the defending the thirteen lawsuits, but a lying memoirist is certainly playing with fire.  Just ask J.T. LeRoy a/k/a Laura Albert, who was ordered to pay $116,000 in damages and $350,000 in attorneys' fees for allegedly defrauding a film production company by selling the screen rights to LeRoy's autobiography that turned out to be fiction.

11.  Finally, you might want to take a look at the work of Ben Yagoda (author of Memoir: A History) and Dan DeLorenzo. They have have devised this amusing rating system for the "truthiness" (to adopt Stephen Colbert's great coined term) of memoirs.  Saint Augustine comes out with high ratings, Margaret Jones/Seltzer, not so high.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Unoriginal Sin: Differences Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Plagiarism, which many people commonly think has to do with copyright, is not in fact a legal doctrine. True plagiarism is an ethical, not a legal, offense and is enforceable by academic authorities, not courts. Plagiarism occurs when someone – a hurried student, a neglectful professor, an unscrupulous writer – falsely claims someone else’s words, whether copyrighted or not, as his own. Of course, if the plagiarized work is protected by copyright, the unauthorized reproduction is also a copyright infringement.

By the way, I cribbed every word of that first paragraph from Black's Law Dictionary, which, in turn, was quoting (with attribution) from copyright guru Paul Goldsteins' book Copyright's Highway.   If I hadn't bothered to mention Professor Goldstein, I would have been guilty of the sin of plagiarism, but not the actionable offense of copyright infringement.  (As a matter of copyright law, my quotation from Goldstein is, I trust, safely within the bounds of "fair use.")

In the words of Merriam-Webster Online, "plagiarism" is the act of steal[ing] and pass[ing] off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use [of] (another's production) without crediting the source."   By contrast, "copyright infringement," occurs "when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner."  (See the definitions section of the U.S. Copyright Office website.)  Similar, but not exactly the same.

Many acts of plagiarism are not copyright infringements.  And many acts of copyright infringement do not arise from plagiarism.  This post seeks to clarify the differences between the two transgressions -- differences that writers (and sometimes judges) often tend to blur.  Indeed, even Professor Goldstein engaged in a bit of blurring; it would have been more precise to say that "if the plagiarized work is protected by copyright and the copying is substantial, the unauthorized reproduction may sometimes also be a copyright infringement."

Copyright infringement is a legal offense against property rights, whereas plagiarism is an ethical failure to honor one's intellectual forefathers and foremothers.  Plagiarism does not amount to copyright infringement unless (a) the plagiarist has republished copyrightable expression of another, and (b) the amount of copied expression exceeds the boundaries of fair use.  For example, facts and ideas are not protected by copyright; only original "expression" is.  So, an academic who harvests facts from another scholar without giving due credit may be a  plagiarist, but, if she expresses those facts and ideas in her own words, she is not an infringer.  Or to take another example, works first published in the U.S. before 1923 are no longer in copyright.  Consequently, a novelist who lifts sentences and scenes from the short story sequence Winesburg, Ohio (first published in 1919 and now in the public domain in the U.S.) without crediting Sherwood Anderson would also be a plagiarist, but not an infringer.  When I pass off as my own original work ideas or public domain expression or sufficiently brief snippets of expression taken from others (e.g., my quote taken from Goldstein, devoid of quotation marks), I may have  -- depending upon the context -- committed plagiarism because, in the words of Judge Richard Posner, "readers of the new work are invited to think that those features are the inventions or discoveries of the plagiarist."  Yet I could not successfully sued for copyright infringement.

Conversely, if I quote too lengthily from the copyright-protected works of others, I may be a copyright infringer, even though I have carefully and fully acknowledged the author and work that I am quoting.  Thus, for example, in one well-known copyright case, the poet Ian Hamilton was found to have committed infringement by quoting too extensively from J.D. Salinger's unpublished letters in a biography of Salinger, even though Hamilton meticulously footnoted each quotation.

Examples of plagiarism are legion.  The Wikipedia offers a long, varied, and fascinating list of plagiarism controversies.  (Did you know that Helen Keller was caught up in a plagiarism scandal?)  Caslon Analystics of Australia has published another inventory of alleged incidents of literary plagiarism.  Wikipedia has a discussion of the theory and history of plagiarism here.  And Caslon Analytics's useful overview of plagiarism (again, with an Australian slant) may be found here,

I have just finished reading Judge Posner's book entitled The Little Book of Plagiarism, which provoked this post.  Judge Posner touches upon many of the famous unoriginality controversies of recent years, including those involving Doris Kearns GoodwinJoe BidenStephen Ambrose, Laurence Tribe, and Kaavya Viswanathan.  (As Judge Posner points out, an uncommon number of such scandals seem to implicate Harvard personalities, not because plagiarism is especially common at Harvard, but because exposing the lapses of the academic elite gives the press and readers an extra shot of schadenfruede; see the Harvard Plagiarism Archive here for a master list of such controversies since 2002.)

Judge Posner offers an especially good explanation as to why some unacknowledged copying is plagiarism, and some is not:
A judgment of plagiarism requires that the copying, besides being deceitful in the sense of misleading the intended readers, induce reliance by them. 
* * * *
The reader has to care about being deceived about authorial identity in order for the deceit to cross the line to fraud and thus constitute plagiarism.
I am also indebted to Judge Posner for teaching me the word "cryptomnesia," which refers to "unconscious plagiarism, a sin of neglect rather than intention and, therefore, less blameworthy."  When caught in the act, almost all plagiarists, including Helen Keller, plead cryptomnesia.  But Judge Posner cites research suggesting that cryptomenesia is almost always a fallacious excuse when the copying consists of "verbal passages of more than trivial length."

The legal remedies for copyright infringement are powerful and plainly set forth in federal law.  (See Chapter 5 of the U.S. Copyright Act.)  But, as per Professor Goldstein's observation quoted above, the legal remedies, if any, for plagiarism are by no means clear-cut.

For many years, authors (and other creative people) sought to use the federal Lanham Act as a basis for litigation against those who used their work without proper authorization or credit. That legal strategy reached a dead end when the Supreme Court held in the 2003 case of Dastar v. Fox that the Lanham Act cannot be used to "creat[e] a cause of action for, in effect, plagiarism -- the use of otherwise unprotected works and inventions without attribution."  Law geeks may wish to take a look at this law review article -- and this one, too -- deploring how Dastar and its progeny effectively eliminated the Lanham Act as a remedy for failure to give credit where credit is due.  Without resort to the Lanham Act, victims of plagiarism -- who do not also have a viable copyright claim -- are left with few means of legal recourse.  In commercial settings, a buyer of a book riddled with plagiarism might theoretically seek to use consumer deception statutes to achieved redress, but there is no economic incentive to sue to recover the price of a book, and a plagiarized author may not even have standing to assert such a claim. See this earlier post discussing some less-than-satisfactory post-Dastar options, including ethical complaints to professional organizations and academic institutions.

After Dastar, shaming (either in private communications with the plagiarists' supervisors or in published accusations) remains the most effective tool for attacking plagiarism and plagiarists.  Timothy Noah of Slate offered this original idea for formalizing the shaming process in the book publishing industry; alas, it is not likely ever to be adopted.  And beware: all too often, accused plagiarists respond to shaming efforts with libel lawsuits against their accusers, as discussed in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In Europe, the legal doctrine of droit moral or moral rights gives authors the ability to claim a right of attribution in their works.  However, even in Europe, droit moral lawsuits are not routinely used to provide a remedy for garden variety plagiarism.  The United States recognizes droit moral or moral rights only with respect to certain limited categories of visual arts.  (See this brief summary of protections accorded by the Visual Artists Rights Act  in the United States.)  Writers do not have equivalent protections for the "right of attribution."

Interestingly, in June 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have imported into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") what is, in essence, a kind of cause of action for plagiarism in certain narrow circumstances.  The kinky case involved two New Jersey shock jocks, who hired a photographer to take a picture of them, apparently nude, with their manliness concealed by a sign bearing their station's logo, WKXW.  The photograph originally appeared in New Jersey Monthly.  Later, however, the station scanned the photograph, stripped out the photographer's credit line (without permission), posted it on the station's website, and invited fans to manipulate the image.  The photographer sued for copyright infringement and, based upon some on-air comments that the shock jocks made about him, defamation. The district court dismissed the photographer's claims, but the Third Circuit reinstated them, concluding, among other things, that the photographer's credit line was "copyright management information," and the digital manipulation and removal of the credit potentially violated the DMCA. Here is the always-entertaining Eriq Gardner's summary of the case.  And you  can see a portion of the image in question in this analysis of the case by New York lawyer Peter Fakler. You can read the entire decision here.  Of course, the DMCA does not provide a tool for addressing plagiarism outside of the context of digital manipulation, but it is an interesting new tactic in the age-old wars over plagiarism.

This New York Times article suggests that plagiarism is on the rise among college students and others, who find it tempting and easy to cut and paste into their papers the expression of others available the web.  Plagiarism.org's website cites a national survey published in Education Week that found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the internet.  Schools have responded by requiring the use of plagiarism-detection software, such as Turn-It-In, created by IParadigms.  

My firm recently handled case where plagiarism detection intersected with alleged copyright infringement.  Several students from McLean High School in northern Virginia tried to turn the tables on IParadigms, and sued the company for copyright infringement.  In checking for plagiarism, Turn-It-In software compares student papers not only to a huge textual database drawn from the internet, but also to an archive consisting of virtually all past papers submitted by students for scanning and review by the Turn-It-In software.  This archive is important to the review process because it enables the software to determine when students have copied from each other rather than copying from the internet.  The database of student papers is not published in any way, but merely resides on computers in the form of digital files used to carry out the comparisons.  The students contended that, in maintaining copies of their papers in these digital files, IParadigms infringed their copyrights in those papers.  In submitting their papers, the students had agreed not to assert any claims against IParadigms, but they argued that the agreement was against their will and otherwise unenforceable.  The courts disagreed and found that the archiving of the students' papers was effectively consented to and, in any event, a "fair use." Here is the opinion of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the lower court's decision of non-infringement.  (My firm represented IParadigms.)

One of the things I do in my legal practice is review manuscripts before they are published for potential legal problems.  The legal vetting task is fairly clear-cut when it comes to identifying issues such as libel or invasion of privacy.  However, it is often nearly impossible for a lawyer (or an editor) to spot potential copyright infringement when an author has plagiarized his sources, failing to use quotation marks or endnotes.  As a result, some publishers are now sometimes using anti-plagiarism software to detect unauthorized copying in manuscripts, particularly in high profile books by celebrity authors.  According to this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, academic journals are similarly "turn[ing] the anti-plagiarism software that professors have been using against their students on the professors themselves."

As Judge Posner is at pains to point out, what constitutes plagiarism and what does not is not always clear.  Many universities publish useful online resources for identifying and preventing plagiarism, including this one maintained by the UCLA libraries.  And here is the American Historical Association's Statement of Standards of Professional Conduct, which includes a fine discussion of plagiarism, and the sage advice: "No matter what the context, the best professional practice for avoiding a charge of plagiarism is always to be explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one's intellectual debts."

Which reminds me, I almost neglected to mention that the headline to this post is a knock-off of the title of this great article by Roy Peter Clark on plagiarism in the newsroom, which originally appeared in The Washington Journalism Review. Clark's article is filled with examples of journalistic plagiarism and offers good counsel on distinguishing between permissible re-purposing and unethical, intellectual fraud.

Actually the phrase "unoriginal sin," has been used by many other writers in connection with articles about plagiarism.  (See this Google search report.)  Likely, this is the result of independent creation -- numerous writers separately coming up with the same pun, though it wasn't at all original on my part.  Suffice it to say that not every lifted phrase or unattributed joke is a sin.  Remember, Judge Posner's point that there must be some element of deceit and the originator and/or the reader/listener must have some reason to care about the undisclosed repurposing.  This well-known anecdote illustrates the irrepressible tradition of passing off the jokes of others as one's own:
After hearing his friend James McNeill Whistler make an especially witty remark, Oscar Wilde said, "My God, James, I wish I had said that."  To which Whistler replied, "You will, Oscar, you will."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cultivating a Healthy Loathing for "Work Made for Hire" Agreements

The "work made for hire" clause is the bete noire of freelance writers.  While the clause is frequently very unfair to authors, it is not unfair in all circumstances; it's never your friend, but there are times when it is not necessarily your enemy.  Following are twelve questions and answers that may help you to cultivate a healthy, not-unduly-paranoid loathing for "work made for hire" agreements.

But first, in digesting this somewhat geeky post, it is useful to know that, as explained here, any "original work of authorship" is subject to copyright protection the moment that it is "fixed in any tangible medium of expression."  For example, a love letter is instantaneously subject to copyright protection as it flows out beneath your fountain pen.  By way of further background, the U.S. Copyright Act uses the term "author" to refer to all types of creators: writers, composers, visual artists, choreographers, filmmakers, architects,  musicians, computer software programmers -- anyone who creates a copyrightable work.  (See Section 102 of the Copyright Act for a general list of the types of copyrightable works.)  The "work made for hire" doctrine addresses the question:  Who is the "author" of -- and the owner of the copyright in -- certain types of works at the moment when they come into existence?

1.  What is the essential difference between a "work made for hire" and the typical copyrightable work?  Ordinarily when you create a copyrightable work you are its "author" and, at least initially, the owner of the copyright.  (See Section 201(a) of the Copyright Act.) A "work made for hire" is a notorious exception to that default principle.  If a work qualifies as a "work made for hire," your employer (or the person or entity that commissioned you to create the work) is deemed the "author" and initial copyright owner, even if he/she/it contributed no copyrightable expression whatsoever to the work.  In other words, the employer (or commissioning party) owns all rights in the work; you own none -- ever (unless you enter into a contract in which your employer -- or the commissioning party -- bestows some rights upon you). No wonder that the American Society of Journalists and Authors has called work-made-for-hire agreements "all rights contracts on steroids."  (See the ASJA's excellent primer on all-rights agreements here.)

2.  What practical difference does it make whether you sign a "work made for hire" agreement or simply grant broad rights in your work to the commissioning party?  There are two major downsides to a "work made for hire" relationship.  First, as stated, you never have rights all in a work that you create on a "for hire" basis.  Everything embraced by the copyright belongs, at all times, to the commissioning party.  So, for example, if you were to create new works including characters or plot lines that appeared in the "work made for hire," you could be found to have infringed the commissioning party's copyright.  Of course, as discussed in this earlier post, an assignment of your entire copyright interest would put you in a similar "rightless" position.  This brings me to the second major downside: under the Copyright Act, a writer who assigns his copyright at least retains a right to terminate that assignment between the 35th and 40th year after it is made. By contrast, a "work made for hire" is forever.  Since you are not deemed to be the "author" of a "work made for hire," you or your heirs cannot exercise the termination right.

For example, in the Bob Marley case, the court found that five record albums recorded by the great reggae star between 1973 and 1977 were "works made for hire."  Marley therefore never owned the copyrights, which belonged instead to the "employer," Island Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.  Consequently, Marley's family was unable to exercise the termination right to recapture ownership of the albums after 35 years and thereby negotiate a better financial deal for the rights going forward.  Of course, the great majority of works created in any medium have no commercial value by the time the recapture right kicks in.  However, if your work, like Bob Marley's, is one of the rare long-lived exceptions, the fact that you signed a "work made for hire" agreement instead of a simple grant of rights or even an outright copyright assignment could be crucial.  An "all rights contract on steroids" indeed.

3.  How paranoid should you be about "work made for hire" clauses in contracts for your freelance work?  Only reasonably paranoid.  For many types of mundane works, you may have no interest in ever creating derivative works or recapturing the copyrights in 35 years.  Freelance advertising copy.  Annual reports for corporations.  Beer making instructions.  Marketing brochures.  Press releases.  Technical writing.  I wrote all of those kinds of works in my days as a freelancer, before going to law school, and I have never regretted for a moment having no copyright interest in them.  On the other hand, I also published books, magazine articles, and op-ed pieces, and I would not have been pleased to sign "work made for hire" agreements for those works.  When, as a freelancer, you create a novel, a short story, a non-fiction book, a significant piece of journalism, a poem, a song, a play, a screenplay, or a variety of other works into which you pour something of your soul and which have at least some potential to be re-purposed (e.g., turning them into longer works, or re-using characters) it is entirely rational to be reluctant to sign a "work made for hire" agreement or, for that matter, any form of "all rights" agreement.  It's a complex personal, economic, and legal equation, which will vary from writer to writer and work to work.  There are some areas of writing, such as multi-authored textbook publishing, where "work made for hire" arrangements are commonplace.  There are other contexts in which a "work made for hire" contract is little more than a rights grab.  The various conventions of particular markets for writers are beyond the scope of this post, but are addressed in some of the online and printed references mentioned below.


4.  All right, then, when is a work a "work made for hire."  Under Section 101 of the U.S. Copyright Act, a “work-made-for-hire” can arise in only two circumstances: (1) when you, as an “employee,” create any type of copyrightable work within the scope of your employment, or (2) when you, as a non-employee, are specially ordered or commissioned to create one of nine designated types of works and you and the commissioning party agree in writing that the work will be a “work made for hire.” 

5. What are the tricky parts of the "employee" branch of the "work made for hire" doctrine?  The works you create for your employer within the scope of your employment are presumptively "works made for hire."  No written agreement is required.  For example, whatever I write for the law firm that employs me belongs to the firm, not to me.  If my firm is paying me for written work that I create on firm premises during regular business hours with firm computers, I don't find it objectionable that the firm owns all rights to it.  Controversies concerning employee-created "works made for hire" tend to arise in two areas.  First, there may be disputes as to who qualifies as an "employee," such that the copyright vests in the employer, rather than an independent contractor or freelancer.  That was the issue in the case of Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid in which the Supreme Court found that a sculptor was not an employee of the non-profit entity that retained him to create a sculpture.  Second, there may be disputes as to whether a work is created "within the scope" of the employee's job responsibilities.  If you work at The New Yorker as an editor during the day, your employer shouldn't own the short stories you are writing at home at night. While I am confident that The New Yorker does not make such an overreaching claim, other employers do sometimes include unfair anti-moonlighting clauses in their employment contracts or employee handbooks that purport to assert ownership over work created on the employees' own time.  (See this amusing blog discussing IP and moonlighting in practical terms.)  Anti-moonlighting rules may sometimes involve a "copyright assignment" issue rather than a "work made for hire" issue, but, either way, employees are too often disadvantaged by such clauses.

6.  In the non-employee/freelancer context, must there be a written agreement with the commissioning party in order for your work to be deemed a "work made for hire"?  Yes.  If you are not an employee of the person or entity that commissions your copyrightable work, then, in order for the work to qualify as a “work made for hire,” there must be a written agreement between the parties, signed by both of them. These days, an inked signature on a piece of paper may not necessarily be required.  But there must be something that qualifies as an “agreement” to which you personally affixed your name in some way. 

7.  Does a "work made for hire" agreement have to be made before you create your work?  Yes.  The parties must agree before the work is created that it will be a "work made for hire" belonging to the commissioning party.  Courts are divided on whether the parties can orally agree on a "work made for hire" arrangement beforehand, but wait until after the work is created to sign a written agreement.  Beware of efforts to recharacterize a work as a "work made for hire" after the fact.  Here is Ivan Hoffman's blog post on the regrettable practice of using after-the-fact check endorsements to memorialize the "work made for hire" status of a work.

8.  Does a "work made for hire" agreement have to include the magic words "work made for hire" for it to be effective?  Yes and no.  Ordinarily the agreement should use verbatim the magic words “work for hire" or “work made for hire” in order to give rise to a valid "work made for hire" relationship.  If it does not use those words, the agreement may be interpreted as giving rise to some other form of transfer of rights.  But be careful:  the courts have sometimes cut commissioning parties some slack in terms of the exact phrasing, as long as the intention is clear.  An agreement that speaks of the work as being “specially ordered or commissioned” or created “at the direction and expense” of another might conceivably sneak by.  (See the discussion "talismanic words" in this case.)

9.  Do all specially-commissioned, copyrightable works created by freelancers qualify as "works made for hire"?  No.  In an employer-employee relationship, any type of copyrightable work may be a "work made for hire."  By contrast, in a non-employee/freelance situation, only a copyrightable work that falls within one of nine categories specified in Section 101 of the Copyright Act can properly be deemed a "work made for hire," namely:
a work specially ordered or commissioned for use [1] as a contribution to a collective work, [2] as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, [3] as a translation, [4] as a supplementary work, [5] as a compilation, [6] as an instructional text, [7] as a test, [8] as answer material for a test, or [9] as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. For the purpose of the foregoing sentence, a “supplementary work” is a work prepared for publication as a secondary adjunct to a work by another author for the purpose of introducing, concluding, illustrating, explaining, revising, commenting upon, or assisting in the use of the other work, such as forewords, afterwords, pictorial illustrations, maps, charts, tables, editorial notes, musical arrangements, answer material for tests, bibliographies, appendixes, and indexes, and an “instructional text” is a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities.
Not infrequently, through ignorance or subterfuge, a commissioning party will ask a freelancer to sign a "work made for hire agreement" for a type of work that can't be a "work made for hire."  For example, even if your contract for a novel says that it is a "work made for hire," it probably isn't. Similarly, in the Creative Nonviolence case above, a contract characterizing a sculpture as a "work made for hire" failed because a sculpture does not fall within one of the nine categories.  Usually, however, a sophisticated commissioning party will include a "belt an suspenders clause" that says, in essence, "if for any reason the work does not qualify as a 'work made for hire,' writer hereby assigns to the commissioning party all right, title, and interest in the work, including, but not limited to, all copyrights therein throughout the world." But, if there is only an assignment of copyright, rather than a "work made for hire" relationship, a writer would at least retain the right to terminate the transfer after 35 years (unlike the Bob Marley in the case discussed above).


10.  Are there other differences between a "work made for hire" and a conventional copyrighted work?  A few.  For example, unlike a traditionally authored work, for which the duration of copyright in the United States is the life of the author plus 70 years, a "work made for hire" enjoys a term of copyright that runs for 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.  But the essence of the "work made for hire" doctrine turns on copyright ownership and the absence of a termination right.

11.  Are there any limits on what an employer or commissioning party can do with a "work made for hire"?  Not many. Such limits as there are come from areas of the law other than copyright.  Right of publicity law or unfair competition law may prevent the proprietor of the work from using your name without your written permission.  And you can, of course, enter into a contract with the proprietor that imposes upon him any terms you both agree upon, such as the duty to pay you royalties or to obtain your permission for certain uses.  But absent a contract or right of publicity violation, the proprietor has free rein to create derivative works, combine the work with others, translate it, abridge it, change it, exploit it in all media  -- the full scope of rights of a copyright owner.

12.  What should you do when you are asked to sign a "work made for hire" agreement in a context where you believe it is unfair?  Propose a license of less extensive rights as an alternative, which gives other party what he really needs, but not the many rights he really doesn't need.  If that doesn't work, bargain for more money for derivative uses.  Or ask that the commissioning party to assign the rights to you after a period of years. Of course, if you have little or no bargaining power, the commissioning party may tell you to take it or leave it.  I you have a literary agent, she can offer you advice on the commercial realities of your particular situation.  If you don't have an agent and if it is a commercially significant project, it may be prudent to seek the advice of a lawyer concerning the contract language and your legal options.  See this earlier post on 44 sources of free or low-cost legal help for writers.

There is a wealth of good advice on how to respond when presented with a "work made for hire" contract in the ASJA primer mentioned above.  The Writer's Legal Guide also offers pointers on negotiating strategy, including the reminder that, if you do sign a "work made for hire" agreement, you should obtain a written promise of any authorship attribution you are seeking.  The Writer's Legal Guide also sagely advises that you try to bargain for a promise that, if the commissioning party cancels the project for any reason, the copyright in the work will be assigned to you.

For general information of the "work made for hire doctrine," the place to start is Copyright Office Circular 9.  There is also a short, helpful discussion of "works made for hire" at the KeepYourCopyright.org site.  The Professional Artists League has posted a feisty article on "work made for hire" abuses; while it focuses on visual artists, writers confront many of the same abuses.  New York lawyer Lloyd Jassin has written a good article on drafting "work made for hire" agreements, written primarily from the point of view of a publisher seeking to acquire works on a "for hire" basis.

Finally, please note that this post is highly U.S.-centric.  The "work made for hire" doctrine exists in some form in many countries, but the rules vary significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Agent from Hell and the Top Six Scams Targeting Writers

Pity the poor writers who chose the Deering Literary Agency of Nicholasville, Kentucky, to represent them. According to The Seattle Times, the founder of the agency, Dorothy Deering, was:
an out-of-work bookkeeper saddled with a felony embezzlement conviction. By 1987, she had written a science-fiction novel and been swindled by three "fee agents" who promised to find her a publisher. Rather than react bitterly, though, she was inspired to start a new career: Taking advantage of aspiring writers just like her. 
Deering persuaded her clients to pay her thousands of dollars to edit, print, publish, and promote their books.  Most ended up, in the words of The Washington Post, with "no book, no life savings, no nothing." 

Thirteen years after she launched her agency, Deering achieved the distinction of becoming the first U.S. literary agent to be convicted of mail fraud.  She was sentenced to 46 months in prison, and she and her confederates were ordered to repay more than $2 million in restitution to the hundreds of authors they had bilked.

Criminal law professor and ex-FBI agent, James Fisher, recounted the tale of Deering's literary grifterism in Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell The title refers to the ten percent royalties that the authors were promised on sales of theirs books. According to The Christian Scientist Monitor, only about six of the 200 books that the Deering Agency contracted to publish ever made it into print.  

But Deering and her accomplices are by no means the only practitioners of this "genteel racket."  Fisher estimated that, in1999, more than 10,000 gullible writers forked over more than $50 million to dishonest literary agents.  The Post called it "one of the dark, ugly secrets of the American publishing industry."

The Top Six Literary Scams

Many writers would give their eye teeth to be published, and there are plenty of scammers ready to take them. Here are six classic literary scams.

Scam 1:  The pay-to-publish companies that (a) charge vastly excessive fees to print your work, (b) produce a shoddy product or no product at all, and/or (c) make misleading claims about their capabilities to market your book, distribute it to bookstores, and have it reviewed. Particularly in these days of do-it-yourself ebooks, the economics and advisability self-publishing are a complex subject.  A very few authors make decent money by publishing their own books, but the vast majority never come close to earning back their investment.  Most authors are probably well-advised to focus their efforts on honing their craft, finding an honorable agent, and moving heaven and earth to place their work with a conventional publisher that reliably pays royalties and (one hopes) an advance.  If you can't find a conventional publisher and crave an audience for your work, the Internet can often provide a community of readers virtually for free.  (But see this earlier post on the implications of Internet publication.) Suffice it to say that if you're planning to pay to have your work published, do a lot of comparison shopping and carefully investigate the track records of companies you are considering. And if you're paying to publish, you should retain all rights (except the strictly limited non-exclusive right to print copies pursuant to your specific authorization).

Scam 2:  Agents Who Charge Up-Front Fees.  The  fees are variously styled as "reading fees," "representation fees," "evaluation fees," "retainers," or "marketing fees."  But whatever they are called, they are a bad deal for writers.  Agents should make their money by selling your work, not by charging you to read your work. Indeed, the Code of Ethics of the Association of Authors Representatives ("AAR") expressly states that "literary agents should not charge clients and potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works in the ordinary course of business."  Here is a list of AAR member agents.  And here is an older Neil Gaiman post on literary agents.

Scam 3.  "Book Doctors" Who Are Quacks.  Using ghost writers, book doctors, and freelance editors is, of course, a longstanding tradition in publishing.  (See this quite wonderful profile of Sarah Palin's ghost.)  There is nothing wrong with it, provided your doctor is talented, reliable, reasonably priced, and willing to enter into a written agreement specifying exactly what she will do, when she will do it, how much she will be paid, how the relationship can be terminated if it doesn't work out, and that she has no rights whatsoever in the finished work.  See this earlier post on the importance of collaboration agreements.  Regrettably, many writers saddle themselves with expensive quacks who are unable to produce a work worthy of publication and, worse still, place a cloud over the ownership rights in the manuscript. 

The genius of the Deering Literary Agency was that it managed to combine the perverse elements of items 1 through 3 above.

Scam 4. (Some But Not All) Pay-To-Play Writing Contests.  There are all too many writing contests where the sponsor is simply trying to make a profit on entry fees; there is no honor, no glory in winning (assuming that a winner is even selected).  Here again the line is not entirely bright.  Some quite respectable contests and awards do require modest entry fees.  But you should be very leery of paying to enter a contest that you've never heard of.  And be especially skeptical of contests that require you to assign to the contest operator any publishing rights in your work (much less exclusive publishing rights), particularly if your work is not even the winner.  The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America ("SFWA") offers some good guidelines for assessing contests here.  And here is a post from winningwriters.com on spotting a bad poetry contest.

Scam 5.  Pay-To-Publish Anthologies.  These are similar to profit-making contests.  You submit a poem or short story; you are notified that your work has been selected for inclusion; and you pressured to buy several copies of the (expensive) book in which your piece is presumably going to appear.  The anthology, if it is published at all, crams in hundreds of poems or stories of no consistent distinction.  Here's what the SFWA says about what are, in effect, vanity anthologies.

Scam 6:  The Classic Deadbeat.  But the ultimate scourge of freelancers is the person or company that hires you to write and never pays (or cynically bargains you down to a sum far lower than was originally promised).  There is no way to completely protect yourself against the deadbeat other than demanding full payment up-front -- an arrangement to which few writing clients will ever agree.  Beyond that, key defensive strategies are to get your financial agreement in writing, try to arrange for interim installment payments and kill fees, and provide in your agreement that rights in your work not transferred unless and until you are paid in full.  The American Society of Journalists and Authors "Getting Paid" webpage offers good advice on strategies for dealing with late payers and non-payers.

"Writer Beware"

The SFWA and Mystery Writers of America maintain the excellent Writer Beware webpages (some of which I've linked to above) that promise to "shine a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls."  Writer Beware offers detailed discussions of unethical agency practices, fly-by-night publishers, contest scams, vanity press abuses, rip-off services for writers, and Twenty-First Century swindles such as overpriced ebook self-publishing and print-on-demand services. The site includes lists of "two thumbs down" agents and publishers.  And there is a Writers Beware Blog that "provides up-to-the-minute information on specific scams and schemes."  The information is accessible to all -- not just to SFWA members.

"Contract Watch"

The American Society of Journalists and Authors offers an excellent "Contract Watch" feature on its website that focuses on scammy (or otherwise unfair) provisions in book, periodical, and online publishing agreements. 

"The Street Smart Writer"

Writer Jenna Glatzer and Maryland-based lawyer Daniel Steven co-authored a feisty book entitled The Street Smart Writer: Self Defense Against Sharks and Scams in the Writing World Glatzer and Steven cover in detail many of the subjects briefly touched on in this post: pay-to-publish vanity press deals; deceptive writing contests; pay-to-read agents. They also have chapters on  "After Publication Rip-Offs for Book Authors," "Special Screw-Overs for Screenwriters," "Dealing with Deadbeats," and "What To Do If You've Been Screwed."  This is not a book for the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan, who already have access to great agents and lawyers.  But if you're a novelist or poet struggling to break into print or or scrappy non-fiction freelancer continually searching for paying markets for your work, this is a practical self-defense guide with a surprisingly upbeat tone.  Well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Other Anti-Scam Resources on the Web

A few years back, Chicago-based thriller writer Joe Konrath wrote this blog entry on writing scams; it remains one of the better short summaries of the subject, and it has attracted scads of interesting comments from readers. His basic message: "don't pay anyone any money for anything"; but, "if you do, do so knowing the risks involved."  Literary agent Barbara Doyen has also posted a series of articles on scams targeting writers.

Jim Fisher, who chronicled the exploits of the Deering Literary Agency in Ten Percent of Nothing maintains a website with a section on publishing scams.  His "20 Tips on How To Assess a Literary Agent" contains especially pragmatic advice.  Here, by the way, is a Bookslut interview with Fisher.

The amusingly named Preditors & Editors site identifies publishers, contests, and agents that have been the subject of writers' complaints.  Of course, writers who complain are not always in the right; there may be another side to some of the stories.  But it is certainly worth checking online evaluation sites for comments when you are dealing with a new and unfamiliar outlet for your work.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Competing Works: The Third Nastiest Clause in Book Publishing Agreements

Do you remember Harry Lorayne? If you ever met him, odds are he would remember you.  Lorayne is a memory-training specialist and performer who authored How To Develop a Super Power Memory.  He is also the poster child for the perils of the "no competing works" clause in publishing contracts.

In 1956, Lorayne signed a contract with publisher Frederick Fell for Super Power Memory, which contained a clause that prohibited Lorayne from "participating in the publication of any similar work which would tend to interfere with or injure sales of the book under contract."  Eighteen years later, when Super Power Memory was still in print, Lorayne wrote another book on memory (together with, improbably enough, basketball star Jerry Lucas) entitled The Memory Book, which was published with great success by Stein & Day.  Fell sued -- archly accusing Lorayne of "an apparent moment of forgetfulness" in disregarding the "no competing works" clause.  

A preliminary decision in the Lorayne case is reported here (but it doesn't really tell you much about the contractual issues).  I do not know how the Lorayne case was ultimately resolved; I do know that The Memory Book continued to be sold without interruption.  But, to me, the fundamental question in the case has always been: what in the world would Harry Lorayne ever write about except memory training?  If a court were to enforce a broad "no competing works" clause against him, it would essentially be saying that Lorayne could never write another book as long as Super Power Memory was available in any edition.

Specialists Beware

Like Harry Lorayne, many academicians and textbook writers spend their entire professional lives researching and writing about the same general subject matter.  Take, for example, a professor who authors a textbook on mycology or evolutionary psychology early in her career.  Strictly construed, a "no competing works" clause might mandate that she forever remain a one-book author.  Fortunately, as with covenants not to compete, the courts tend to construe such clauses narrowly, seeking to limit them in time, subject matter, or geographical scope so as not to interfere with an expert's ability to practice her profession and earn a living.

Consider the case of the late Justin Wilson, who was the author of Louisiana Outdoor Cookin'.   When Wilson later tried to publish a book with another publisher entitled Homegrown Louisiana Cookin', his first publisher sued, arguing that the "no competing works" clause barred such a sequel.  Surely, if you are a Cajun chef, living and working in Louisiana, it is unsurprising that you might aspire to write more than one book on Louisiana cookin'.  And a Louisiana court, ruled that Wilson had the right to do so, despite the contractual prohibition.  The judge's decision noted that "non-competition clauses are not favored in the law and are strictly construed against the person attempting to limit the competition."  Because the clause was not limited to a specific time period or restricted area, the non-compete was held to be "too vague and broad to be enforceable."

The essential legal treatise Perle & Williams on Publishing Law mentions another case in California is which the author went on the warpath and sued his publisher, arguing that the "no competing works" clause was an unreasonable restraint on trade in violation of the antitrust laws. (Perle and Williams don't report the outcome; if you happen to know, please send me an email.)

A Typical Clause

To be fair, a publisher is entitled to be protected against the author simply repackaging his book and publishing it a second time with another publisher. But many "no competing works" clauses go farther than they need to, as in this fairly typical example
During the term of this agreement the Author shall not, without prior written consent of the Publisher, participate in the publication of or be otherwise connnected with any work that might, in the Publisher's opinion, directly or indirectly interfere with or diminish the sale of the Work.
This provision is particularly aggressive because (1) it restricts for an indefinite period of time any "participation" in a conflicting work, even as a co-author or contributor; (2) it introduces the vague notion of "indirect" interference with the sale of a work; (3) it is not limited in the types of competing works (e.g., book-length) that it prohibits; and (4) the test of whether book two "interferes" with the sales of book one is subjective, turning entirely on the "opinion" of the publisher.

In contracts with academic writers, it is fairly common for publishers to include an additional clause along these lines:
The Author may, however, draw on and refer to material contained in the Work in preparing articles for publication in scholarly and professional journals and papers for delivery at professional meetings, provided that credit is given to the Work and the Publisher.
Helpful, but it really doesn't give you any protection when it comes to your next full-length work.

A Better Alternative

With works of non-fiction in particular, publishers will often refuse to eliminate the "no competing works" clause entirely.  However, when possible, you should at least try to negotiate a more even-handed clause. The Writer's Legal Guide recommends that the contract describe the type of successor work you are prohibited from writing
as specifically as possible as to subject matter, market, and format. Do not give the publisher the discretion to decide whether a work will compete with the contracted book -- limit the restriction to works that will actually compete with the primary work.
For example, if you are writing a textbook, you might try to limit the non-compete to another textbook on the identical subject directed to a similar academic level (e.g., high school biology students), clearly reserving the right to publish scholarly monographs or works for a general audience on the same subject.  You could also seek to make clear that a competing "work" must be book-length, and that the clause therefore has no application to articles, etc.  A somewhat better clause might look like this:
For a period of four years, Author shall not publish any book-length work on the same subject as the Work, namely [inserting here a detailed description of the "subject"], directed to the same audience, that will diminish sales of the Work.
And, if you have an idea for a subsequent work on a related subject, you can attempt to expressly carve out that work from the scope of the "no competing works" clause, e.g.:
Publisher agrees that Author may continue to write and publish books and other works dealing with mycology and may expand chapters from the Work to new full-length works.  For the avoidance of doubt, this clause is not intended to prohibit Author's publication of such works.
Of course, whether you can obtain changes of this kind will depend upon your bargaining power.  If you have an agent, she can be a godsend, advising you what's realistic and achievable under your particular circumstances.  For many authors, the language of the "no competing works" clause may not be a deal breaker, but for some specialists it ought to be.

The "No-Competing Works" Clause and Works of Fiction

The "no competing works" clause is primarily a concern in contracts for works of non-fiction. Ordinarily two novels by the same author, published by two different publishers, will not interfere with each other's sales. Neverthless, in rare instances, publishers have taken the dubious position that the "no competing works" clause prohibits re-use of the characters from a novel in a sequel. The "no competing works" clause has little genuine commercial application to fiction, and it is not unreasonable to ask that it be stricken entirely from a contract for a novel or a book of short stories.  At the very least, the publisher should be willing to clarify that the clause does not prohibit you from publishing sequels or re-purposing characters in other works.

What If Your Contract Does Not Contain a "No Competing Works" Clause?

If you do not have a "no competing works" clause in your publishing contract, then you are ordinarily free to write a book on the same topic for another publisher. That's the lesson of Wolf v. Illustrated World Encyclopedia.  But watch out for the "option clause," which may require you to offer your next book to your old publisher.  And remember that, if you granted exclusive publishing rights to Publisher X, it became an owner of a "copyright interest" in the work.  As a result, Publisher X could sue you and your new publisher for copyright infringement, if you cannibalize a meaningful amount of text from the book you published with Publisher X.  Yes, you can be sued for infringing a copyright in a work that you yourself created; do-it-yourself infringement was alleged in the case involving John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater fame and (more or less) in the arbitration involving The Hunt for Red October, described in this earlier post.

Can Your Publisher Issue Another Work that Competes with Yours?

What about the flip side?  Can a book publisher publish two or more books on the same subject by different authors?  The answer is:  ordinarily yes.  For example, Harry Lorayne's publisher could probably publish two or even twenty books on memory without breaching its duties to Lorayne, unless, as described in Van Valkenburgh v. Hayden Publishing, the publisher promised to use its best efforts to promote one author's book and allegedly did not act in good faith in publishing books by other authors on the same topic.  Suffice it to say that publishers will seldom sign a "best efforts" clause.

More Resources


I suggested that the "no competing works" clause may be the third "nastiest" clauses in a book publishing agreement.  What are number one and number two?  Depending upon the phrasing, of course, they are often the option clause and the grant of rights clause.  More about these extremely important terms in later posts.