The Slow Death of the American Author

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LAST month, the Supreme Court decided to allow the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright. Not only does this ruling open the gates to a surge in cheap imports, but since they will be sold in a secondary market, authors won’t get royalties.

This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.

Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress “to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.

That culture is now at risk. The value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated, a crisis that hits hardest not best-selling authors like me, who have benefited from most of the recent changes in bookselling, but new and so-called midlist writers.

Take e-books. They are much less expensive for publishers to produce: there are no printing, warehousing or transportation costs, and unlike physical books, there is no risk that the retailer will return the book for full credit.

But instead of using the savings to be more generous to authors, the six major publishing houses — five of which were sued last year by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division for fixing e-book prices — all rigidly insist on clauses limiting e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.

Best-selling authors have the market power to negotiate a higher implicit e-book royalty in our advances, even if our publishers won’t admit it. But writers whose works sell less robustly find their earnings declining because of the new rate, a process that will accelerate as the market pivots more toward digital.

And there are many e-books on which authors and publishers, big and small, earn nothing at all. Numerous pirate sites, supported by advertising or subscription fees, have grown up offshore, offering new and old e-books free.

The pirates would be a limited menace were it not for search engines that point users to these rogue sites with no fear of legal consequence, thanks to a provision inserted into the 1998 copyright laws. A search for “Scott Turow free e-books” brought up 10 pirate sites out of the first 10 results on Yahoo, 8 of 8 on Bing and 6 of 10 on Google, with paid ads decorating the margins of all three pages.

If I stood on a corner telling people who asked where they could buy stolen goods and collected a small fee for it, I’d be on my way to jail. And yet even while search engines sail under mottos like “Don’t be evil,” they do the same thing.

Google is also at odds with many writers because in 2004 it partnered with five major libraries to scan and digitize millions of in-copyright books, without permission from authors. The Authors Guild (of which I am president) sued; years later, with a proposed settlement scuttled by the judge, the litigation goes on.

Google says this is a “fair use” of the works, an exception to copyright, because it shows only snippets of the books in response to each search. Of course, over the course of thousands of searches, Google is using the whole book and selling ads each time, while sharing none of the revenue with the author or publisher.

It got worse in 2011, when a consortium of some of Google’s partner libraries, the Hathi Trust, decided to put online some 200 books that the group had unilaterally decided were “orphans,” meaning they couldn’t locate the copyright owners. The “orphans” turned out to include books from writers like the best-selling novelist J. R. Salamanca — alive and well in Maryland — and the Pulitzer Prize winner James Gould Cozzens, whose copyrights were left to Harvard. The Authors Guild sued, and Hathi suspended the program. But that litigation also continues, even while millions of copyrighted works are stored online, one hacker away from worldwide dissemination free.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 8, 2013, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: The Slow Death of the American Author.

Scott Turow, a lawyer, is the president of the Authors Guild and the author of the forthcoming novel “Identical.”

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Violence and Slaughter in the Old West: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday In Tombstone

The first movie I remember seeing with my mom was “Gunfight at OK Corral.” It was a busy day at the Utopia on Union Turnpike in Queens. It wasn’t a big theater, especially not in the days when movie theaters were palaces. There were hardly any seats left by the time we got there, having walked the mile and some from home. I had a non-driving mom who was also a subscriber to healthy outdoor exercise. We did a lot of walking, she with enthusiasm and verve and I because I didn’t have a choice.

Wyatt Earp at about age 33.

Wyatt Earp at 33. (Photo: Wikipedia)

We found a seat in the second row, from which vantage point Burt and Kirk had heads 20 feet high. It left an indelible mark on my mind. I became an O.K. Corral aficionado, catching each new version of the story as it was cranked out of Hollywood. When video taped movies became available, I caught up with all earlier versions, too.

I stayed with “Gunfight” as my favorite for a long time. Maybe I’m just fond of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Garry generally favored “My Darling Clementine” but he is a John Ford fan, so it figures. We have our preferences and they aren’t based on logic.

In 1993, along came “Tombstone.” One viewing and it was my favorite version of the gunfight story. A few more viewings and it morphed into my favorite western, though there are a goodly number of contenders for second place.

I don’t love it for its historical accuracy, though It is nominally more accurate than any other extant version of the story. As do all the Wyatt Earp – Doc Holliday stories, it omits as much, maybe more, than it includes. The Earps were wild and crazy guys.

English: John Henry "Doc" Holliday, ...

John Henry “Doc” Holliday (Photo: Wikipedia)

Doc Holliday was an even wilder, crazier guy. They were all lethal as Hell and no more honest then they needed to be … or less.

There were other Earp brothers who are consistently left out of the story, maybe because they didn’t go into the peacekeeping business. Dad, on the other hand, was a real piece of work and deserves a movie of his own. Although I tend to be prickly about historical details, even I do not watch westerns for historical accuracy.

First, I watch them because … I’m embarrassed to admit it … I love horses. I will watch anything with or about horses. You could probably just put on films of horses running around a field and I’d watch that too.

Next, I love westerns because they make it easy to distinguish good from bad. When I was growing up seeing Johnny Mack Brown B movies on old channel 13 in New York, I always knew the guys in black hats were villains and the ones in white hats were heroes. It appealed to my 8-year old need for moral simplicity. Many people never move beyond that … a discussion for a different day.

Most of all, westerns present my fantasies in Technicolor and surround sound. In the western movie world, revenge and righteous violence are terrific. Not merely acceptable, but desirable. In the Old West, when you find a bad guy, get out the six-shooter, shotgun, or both and mow’em down. Justice is meted out quickly and permanently with no guilt attached. You can be a wimp preaching peace and love in real life, but sit down in front of another viewing of “Tombstone,” watch Kurt, Val and the rest of the gang cut a swathe of blood and death across the southwest while you cheer them on.

“Tombstone” is deliciously violent. The gunfight at O.K. corral is merely the beginning. There’s a deeply satisfying amount of killing to follow. I revel in it. When Kurt Russell declares that he’s coming for them and Hell will follow … I am there. Yes, kill the bastards. It’s so cathartic! The only piece of armament I’ve ever owned is my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and a 22 caliber target rifle, but I can pretend. And I’m a dead shot with the rifle and have slaughtered paper plates and other inanimate targets from New York to northern Maine. I have a rich and rewarding fantasy life.

Garry and I made a personal pilgrimage to Tombstone.

Sign on a door in Tombstone, AZ

I have argued with people who keep saying the movie was filmed on a sound stage. Unless the entire town of Tombstone was victim of a mass hallucination  — mass hallucinations are not nearly as common in real life as in Hollywood — and merely thought a movie company came, rebuilt the town to look like historical Tombstone, then filmed a movie … unless you subscribe to this fairly bizarre theory, “Tombstone” was filmed in Tombstone.

I have pictures of Tombstone. We bought tee shirts. It was the best part or at least, our favorite part, of a one long summer’s sojourn through Arizona. So, although there may have been some re-shooting on a set, the bulk of the film was shot in Tombstone. It was and remains the only thing of note to happen there in the past 100 years. Everyone talks about it. It was a big deal.

August was not the best time to visit, but our host still works a real job and it’s hard to find a good time to visit when he isn’t working. Regardless, the mercury climbed to 128 Fahrenheit and never dropped below 120 while the sun shined. Which, that time of year, it does relentlessly. I think that’s why they invented awnings over the wooden sidewalks.

It was painfully hot. Maybe that’s what the fighting was about. Who wouldn’t want to shoot people living in that heat with no air conditioning? It makes one very cranky. I’ll bet the heat got to them, so they tried to kill each other.  It makes almost as much sense as any other explanation.

We don’t watch movies for a dose of reality, or at least I don’t. I have plenty of reality. More than enough. I go to escape, to move from a reality I don’t care for to another world I like better. Westerns let me immerse myself in raw emotions that are unacceptable otherwise.

I love Tombstone.

Mills of the Blackstone Valley

Not surprisingly, the Blackstone Valley is full of old mills. Some are very old, some relatively recent. Some of the oldest are the best preserved and a few have been fully renovated and put back to use as housing or shopping areas.

The Crown and Eagle mills pre-renovated.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

Thousands of water lilies bloom on the small canal that runs to the renovated Crown and Eagle mill.

Thousands of water lilies bloom on the small canal that runs to the renovated Crown and Eagle mill.

On the Mumford. Converted to a liquor store.

Mill on the Mumford. Converted to a liquor store.

Huge brick mill-factory on a large pond. Northbridge. Rain is falling.

Canal between the falls and the small mill, and the former Bernat Mills that burned down five years ago. Uxbridge.

Many mills have been converted to condominiums or mini malls. Some have become office space.

English: The Brick Mill, built 1826, Whitinsvi...

The Brick Mill, built 1826, Whitinsville, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many have burned down or been torn down because they presented a fire hazard. Fortunately, many others have been renovated, turned into malls, senior housing, mini-malls and other kinds of commercial  real estate.

The last standing parts of Bernat Mills.

The last standing parts of Bernat Mills.
Old Mill No. 4

Old Mill No. 4

1911 - Mill No. 4

1911 – Mill No. 4

Mill buildings converted to antiques complex.

Mill complex converted to antiques complex.