Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Harlan's War: Not So Quixotic After All?

Harlan Ellison, for those who aren't familiar with his work, is one of the greatest living science fiction writers, receiving countless awards and distinctions. He's also renowned as one of the most ideosyncratic, contrarian, yet brilliant commentators in the field; his "introductions" in the Dangerous Visions books were arguably as interesting as the material itself, and his commentary work (including the infamous "Glass Teat" column on television) is definitely an excellent read.

The thing is, Harlan is also a staunch backer of copyright law and author's rights, and no great fan of the Internet. Thus, when discovering that his books were being distributed on the newsgroup "alt.binaries.e-book" and over the Gnutella network, he decided to sue RemarQ (a newsgroup provider) and AOL (the owner of the original developers of Gnutella's client software) for "contributory copyright liability". Most commentators on this case had thought it a case of tilting at windmills, with Harlan's lawsuit being fit for little more than entertaining stories at SF conventions. I was one of these.

Apparently, we were all wrong. The Ninth Circuit Court decided to back Harlan and allow the suit to take place, reversing an earlier decision against him. This means that he will indeed be able to sue AOL and RemarQ, despite their very slight connection to the infringement. (The original infringer, one Stephen Robinson, has long settled with Mr. Ellison and his lawyers).

Honestly, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this. I admire Mr. Ellison more than almost any living author, both for his brilliant writing and outspoken (yet usually accurate) commentary. His loathing of the Internet, however, has always bothered me, and I think that partially motivates this. I don't think I like what his suit stands for, because it robs Internet service providers of the same rights granted other common carriers, such as phone companies.

If he succeeds in suing over copyright, he's also opened the door for lawsuits over content. All of a sudden the entire Internet would be subject to the content restrictions of the most repressive and regressive parts of the United States, if not the world. That's not what this place is supposed to be about, and it's one of the big problems with the DMCA; even if the DMCA is not about content, it sets a precedent that can easily be turned to content.

So I have good reason to oppose his suit. I just wish that I didn't have to disagree so deeply with someone I respect so much.

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