Various and Sundry, 7/16/08

Some quick catch-uppery on various things regarding me and everything else:

* For only having been away for a couple of days, I sure got a hell of a lot of mail, although I suspect some of that mail was stuff I let slip before I headed off to Chicago. If you sent me mail since Friday, I may not have gotten to it yet. I hope to get to it all later today (Wednesday). Patience, please.

* This work week also promises to be work-packed, so I may still not be blogging full steam over the next few days. Hey, sometimes I need to write pay copy, you know? Sad but true (actually, not sad — I like to get paid. But still true).

* To the folks asking what I thought about the New Yorker magazine cover featuring the Obamas as flag-burning terrorist fist-jabbers in the White House: I dunno, I thought it was pretty funny, not in the least because I know enough about the New Yorker to know the point was satire, and I’m smart enough to know that enjoying satire is not tantamount to hypocrisy. And in point of fact the New Yorker is not actually a fully accredited house organ of the Obama presidential campaign, so it doesn’t have to not put covers on its magazine that a) fire up all the nonsense yet again and b) give Fox News, etc cover for the next time they punch the racist panic button on the Obamas (“Hey, the New Yorker did it, and it’s full of stinkin’ New York liberals!”). I think it’s a little sad we’ve all reached a point where the difference between racist dog-whistling and the satirizing of such dog-whistling is effectively lost on folks, but I guess we are at that point, and I also recognize the wisdom of the Obama folks handling all this stuff the same way. At this point I’m mostly just tired of it all, and we’ve got four months to go yet.

* Narrowing the focus of attention to science fiction, I’ve been asked for my thoughts about the recent Helix fracas, in which the editor of the Helix online quarterly used a bigoted epithet in a rejection letter (not about the person he was rejecting, but apropos to the story he was rejecting), the rejectee posted the letter online, and then everyone lost their mind about it, some folks who had their stories published in Helix asked to have them removed, and the editor then demanded payment ($40 a story) to expunge the stories from the database. That’s my understanding of the sequence of events, anyway; Tobias Buckell’s been on this rather more than I have, so head over to his site and catch all the action.

My short take on this is that the editor in question said something stupid and bigoted, was surprised to have that stupid and bigoted comment aired to the world, and has since gone out of his way to be obnoxious to the folks who have commented on his stupid and bigoted action and/or have decided that they didn’t want to be associated with such stupidity and bigotry, and he’s being obnoxious mostly out of the principle of the thing. My only real reaction to that is say, well, some people just have to piss up a rope, and this fellow in my experience of him seems to be one of them, and pretty much leave it at that. I feel sorry for the other folks who work on Helix that they’re getting caught in the middle of this, since I know a few of them and in general Helix publishes good stuff (it’s nominated for a Hugo this year in the semiprozine category).

There’s been a side issue here as to the fact the rejectee posted the contents of the rejection letter, and that in doing so he violated the copyright of the rejecting editor, not to mention breaking the sacred confidence of private e-mails between two people and so on (I’m aware of the editor complaining about the second of these, and others noting the first). To this my response is to roll my eyes very dramatically and say give me a goddamn break.

To the latter, please. As if there’s not a grand tradition, fetching back verily to the very first rejection letter, of a) airing the contents of the letter and b) bitching about them to everyone who will listen. If editors were not aware that rejections are often posted and discussed, they must be new to the writing world, and to 2008, in which we have wonders, including marvelous technology to talk to many people simultaneously. Toward the former, the bitching about the copyright issue is silly because the rejectee could have simply posted the line where the editor used the epithet in question, and that would have been fair use and still made the editor look a bit of an ass in public. The issue in this particular is not copyright, it’s the editor being outed as writing something dumb. What all this really boils down to is that if you don’t want to be outed as writing foolish things in a rejection letter, don’t write foolish things in a rejection letter.

What all of this really makes me feel is glad that I only write short fiction on commission.

* For those of you wondering how my Chicago trip went, I’ll likely post about it soon. But not too soon, I expect. Still have some pay copy to get through first.

42 Comments on “Various and Sundry, 7/16/08”

  1. @1:

    I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that, at least from a technical standpoint; see for instance this website.

    Wrt the photograph: if someone takes a photo of me in public, there is a copyright for that picture and it belongs to the photographer. So that doesn’t really support your assertion.

    I don’t know what the situation is with phone conversation. I suppose someone would have to record it before there could be a copyright, but I’m not sure who the copyright would belong to.

  2. John, you really should learn a bit about copyright history and not just the current overzealous attempts to apply it to everything. Copyright is, first and foremost, limited monopoly on CREATIVE works. “Creative” being the key word. Rejection notice (or most day to day email correspondence, for that matter) hardly qualifies as creative.

    And that’s not not just US, BTW, that’s Berne convention for you.

  3. @3:

    I agree with you somewhat. The content of an email affects whether it can be copyrighted; that’s hardly the same thing as a blanket “copyright doesn’t apply to email”, which is how Michael’s post came across to me.

  4. Too much energy has already been invested in the the “New Yorker” cover flap, however, there is the small reality that too many people out there labor under the belief that said cover is a depiction of reality Not to mention that it’s reminiscient of the smear tactics used in the last few elections. That’s why we’re even taking about this.

    Now, if the good folks at the “New Yorker” want to run a cover of McCain in the same spirit, I’d be fine with that. It’s all good clean fun; right?

  5. “semiprozine:” isn’t that the new antidepressant I’ve been hearing about?

  6. xxx:

    “John, you really should learn a bit about copyright history and not just the current overzealous attempts to apply it to everything.”

    You should learn a bit about copyright, period. There’s not a question that copyright could apply to a rejection letter, particularly one, in this case, which is handcrafted specifically to its recipient. The US Copyright office very helpfully details what is not covered by copyright, and there is nothing there that excludes this rejection letter. The fact of the recipient’s rejection is not copyrightable, but the manner in which the editor set it down is.

    That said, my whole point is that whether or not the rejection is copyrightable, objecting to a copyright violation in this case is dumb. Also, and this may be to your point, if someone were dumb enough to sue for copyright violation in a case like this, they might be technically correct but I suspect a judge wouldn’t award them much for the violation, since it’s difficult to argue that someone would suffer monetary damages from a rejectee posting a letter (one rarely makes money from rejection letters).


    Copyright certainly does apply to e-mail. It also applies to, say, comments. You own the copyright to your comments here, for example, since I do not specifically say that comments here become my property (although I do say that I reserve the right to edit and delete them as I see fit.). You may be suffering from the common belief that if something is published electronically, it’s free for anyone to use, anytime, in any way. Sorry, no.

    I agree that personal communication (letters, e-mail, site comments etc) are places where the legal aspects of copyright are not a good fit for how people interact with the texts in question, which I suspect is also to xxx’s point.

  7. The only people who ought to be upset about the Obama cover are Republicans. They are being portrayed as idiots – that’s the point of the whole thing.

    The very idea that someone may feel they have the right to copyright something that they mail to me, about me – shows just how screwed up the whole copyright situation can get. I’m not against it as a whole, but the way most intellectual property rights are used today is a real farce.

  8. As a mildly interested bystander, I thought I should look up Helix and then the offending editor. Based on his bio on the Helix website and his own author website, nobody should be surprised by the way he’s handling this, or for that matter, the original statement in the rejection letter.

    I don’t know the man, so I can’t say whether he actually is an obnoxious, outspoken bigot, but based on the Helix bio and his website, he’s definitely attempted to brand himself as a say-what’s-on-my-mind-even-if-(especially-if)-it-offends kind of guy. He’s probably loving the attention.

  9. I remember when someone copied the Helix submission guidelines into the Asimov’s Forum and W.S. got bent out of shape and claimed copyright infringement demanding that it be removed.

    submission guidelines…Wouldn’t want those getting out there in the wild where people would find them.

  10. xxx, stoolpigeon, et al.:

    Quoting Scalzi — “The fact of the recipient’s rejection is not copyrightable, but the manner in which the editor set it down is.”

    If I send you an e-mail containing a poem I wrote about you, or a few paragraphs detailing our meeting at a party, I own the copyright to that. If I send you a list of your ancestors that I researched for you, or a collection of data about you that I got from your county courthouse, I do not. “Creative” in copyright terms doesn’t mean “imaginative,” it means simply “formed.” Novels, magazine articles, personal letters: subject to copyright. Phone directories, sports scores, bank statements: not.

    That’s why (to use a recent example) Cindy McCain can be accused of plagiarism for her cookie recipes, but not copyright infringement.

  11. True, the editor of Helix is a complete fool who has just destroyed his “semiprozine.” No doubt about that. And that’s unfortunate. But I still have to admire the word “pantiwadulous.” It’s a coinage worthy of the Scalzi himself.

  12. Patrick M@11: Hmm… that’s bizarre. Helix doesn’t take unsolicited submissions. AFAIK, that sentence is their submission guideline. Does the magazine actually say in a way unique enough to qualify for copyright protection?

    If you’re a SFWA member, or SFWA eligible, you can query Helix, but no one gets to send the magazine a story out of the blue. But, as you said, you’d think he’d want people to know that, if nothing else, just to reduce the amount of email he gets.

    JJS@13: I wouldn’t be so sure yet. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden pointed out at her blog, Making Light, “Time, short memories and the natural desire to be published will do more to repair this than words ever could.”

  13. Various @ Various

    On the New Yorker magazine cover, I do believe you are missing a significant level of the amusement found on the right over it. It’s the political equivalent of the conundrum of a classic take on lawyer jokes:

    You know what the problem with lawyer jokes is?


    Lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and everyone else doesn’t think they’re jokes.

    See also Tom Maguire’s take on the subject at Just One Minute.

    I find the whole thing hilarious. I’m laughing both at those who don’t think it’s funny, and at those who don’t think it’s a joke.

  14. Oh no. If I can tell that the New Yorker cover is satire, but still think it’s lame-ass, do I have to give up my Witty Liberal membership card?

    Jeff – recipes can be copyrighted; lists of ingredients can’t.

  15. The editor should have sent a letter like this.

    “This story and premise STINKS. Don’t send anymore like it.
    If this makes you angery…..Bite Me…!!!!!!

    The Editor”

  16. On the New Yorker cover: I don’t think satire works without context. If that same cover had appeared on [insert right-wing-nutjob magazine]… do you think it would have still been satire? (And, personally: I knew little about the magazine, so I took it at face value.)

    On the Helix incident: the most disappointing thing, to me, was someone jumping to his defense, saying that disparaging comments about Islamists couldn’t be racist, because Islam isn’t a race.

  17. The Daily Show’s take on the New Yorker cover last night was really great. I’m too lazy to hunt for a link (sorry), but I encourage everyone to search it out if you have the chance.

  18. I found a creation museum in Big Valley, Alberta. Why is this significant/hilarious? Alberta is dinosaur central… I think the creation museum isn’t far from the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller ( and Dinosaur Provincial Park. Obviously strategically placed.

  19. I can understand why the Obama folks were upset about the New Yorker cover. Not everyone reads the New Yorker; and those people will be unaware of the context behind the cover (i.e. that the New Yorker has consistently been a slavish mouthpiece for the Obama campaign, so the satire of Obama critics was obvious.)

    Moreover, the point that the satire was trying to make is a bit stale, and has been for some time now. The idea that Obama skeptics fail to adore the Great One because they believe he is either a.) a closet Muslim or b.) a member of a secret al-Qaeda cell—this is a straw man, a convenient way of dodging mainstraim skepticism about the presumptive Democratic nominee.

    The wits at the New Yorker would likely be less successful explaining this one: How can the Democratic Party justify running a 46-year-old, first-term Senator—who according to poll after poll, has less appeal with independent voters and than Hillary Clinton does? (Look at the primary results in WV, OH, PA, and KY–traditionally pivotal states where Obama is unpopular.)

    Based on the dismal performance of the Bush Administration, Obama should be up 20 points in the polls. (Dukakis had a double-digit lead over Bush 41 at this point in ’88–and he still lost in November.) However, with few variations, McCain and Obama are running neck-and-neck. If the Dems had selected Hillary, they likely *would* have a double-digit lead now.

    This is a more important question for Democrats than the tired straw man concerning Internet rumors of Obama being a Muslim. The New Yorker went after a target that was far too easy to hit, and not really relevant anyway.

  20. mythago @19: Well, that’s an example of how fast these things turn fiesty. A random collection of recipes giving only ingredients, times and temperatures is not copyrightedable. But as soon as you impose an order, or add anecdotes of where you discovered them, or descriptions of how much weight you lost or how the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper in the fudge made you see Cthulhu, then, yes.

    (Not a lawyer, btw, just a former reporter and editor with a well-worn copy of the AP style book. XD)

  21. It will be unfortunate if this controversy does lasting damage to Helix, as it has been publishing a lot of oustanding stories. A couple examples of the excellent work Helix published last year were “Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair” by John Barnes and “The Hoplite” by Robert Reed. To my mind, Helix is the currently the best site for free on-line fiction (with Clarkesworld, Subterranean, and Lone Star Stories not far behind).

  22. @15, re: Helix’s submission guidelines:

    If I recall correctly, the guidelines used to be longer and more interesting. There was a brouhaha about their content a couple of years back.

  23. “Semiprofessional” — I realize that’s a technical term, but given the adolescent behavior of the editor of Helix, I’d have to say he’s unprofessional in the extreme. His gratuitious ugliness throughout this whole controversy makes it highly unlikely that I’ll check out the publication in future. And his efforts to paint himself as the victim (seriously, his only defense is that he was being a bigot in copyrighted material?) just make him more distasteful.

    My sympathies to the many fine staffers and writers mixed up in this fool’s nonsense, but I know I am not the only person done with Helix as a result of this.

  24. Edward Trimnell @24: that the New Yorker has consistently been a slavish mouthpiece for the Obama campaign

    I’m sure that Ryan Lizza, who wrote this detailed and not at all fawning piece about Obama’s messy political history in Chicago in this month’s New Yorker will be happy to hear that.

    As for the Helix issue, well, stay classy, Mr. Sanders. I particularly loved the way he told one writer who asked to have a story taken down that he only bought her story because she was Korean, and then implied she should stuff it up her ass. (Or possibly fuck herself; you could read it either way.)


  25. Ok, I’m officially confused and I need enlightenment. If I don’t hate Arabs or Iranians etc but I make mean and disparaging remarks about Muslims because of their religion I’m racist? Personally I dislike all forms of organized religion especially Christianity, Judiasm and Islam since I am most familiar with the founding mythology of these Iron age faiths and consider it to be completely falsified. People who are true believers are quite delusional but there are varying degrees of fanatism and willful ignorance ranging from loopy harmlessness to outright evil. I regard religion as optional, a choice made by an individual. If one makes a choice I think is insane I may be polite and not say anything or I might speak my mind. For the past few years I have not been able to discern a consensus on how to talk about religion despite its roles in society. I don’t want to appear racist or bigoted about skin color or language or dress codes or genetics etc. I wish to disparage, ridicule, poke fun at what are truly harmful, factually challenged, destructive, anti-scientific ideas and traditions as well as those who believe in them. There is a fierce societal pressure to “respect the beliefs of others” but why, when they do not respect your own, each sect/cult being an exclusive club that views all others as flawed and hell-bound. It doesn’t get more disrespectful than that with out outright violence. Sanity is needed in big doses, for instance folks are gathered at gas stations praying for lower prices, a college kid may be expelled for kidnapping a communion cracker (no kidding, see Pharyngula for the saga entire). How can we talk about religion without people thinking they are being criticized for anything else but their faith. Sorry for the rant but this is a hard one to handle.

  26. (Look at the primary results in WV, OH, PA, and KY–traditionally pivotal states where Obama is unpopular.)

    Ah, the latest Republican talking point. Obama’s inexperienced, he’s not doing as well as he should be. Oh, sigh! It’s kind of cute.

    The point of quoting the above is that arguing that WV and KY are swing states is like arguing NY and CA are.

  27. John, I wasn’t thinking along “i can haz pierat” lines, I was thinking about telephone recording laws.

    If you phone me, I have the right to record it, and I then own the copyright on that recording. Some jurisdictions would require me to inform you, or require you’re consent, but where I am I can do it silently if I wish.

  28. Michael, the jury is still (figuratively) out on that. Federal law does allow that, however it has apparently not been decided whether a stricter requirement from another jurisdiction would apply to an interstate phone call.

    So says (which I found via google). (Note that it doesn’t say you can’t… it just says that it’s unknown at this point, and so you shouldn’t count on being able to get away with it. But, that also means you shouldn’t count on being hauled away to jail :).)

  29. I’m amazed that the legality of someone posting Sander’ bigoted letter is the most important thing people are finding to comment on in this situation.

  30. Some jurisdictions would require me to inform you, or require you’re consent, but where I am I can do it silently if I wish.

    You might want to check with a lawyer before assuming that. Your state may permit ‘one-person’ recording (i.e. only one person needs to know they’re being recorded), but if I’m calling you from a state that requires both parties’ consent, you may have a problem.

  31. Letter copyright is a minefield – thanks J.D. Salinger ( – but notice how many of the ‘blocked’ passages are cleverly reprinted in the article anyways – fair use in news is quite well defined, and the news industry has well paid legal departments to keep it that way).

    But a major part of the legal framework of copyright infringement relates to monetary gain either on the part of the infringer, or lost profit on the part of the copyright owner – which generally does not exist in general in regards to letters. Getting a court to even be interested in this case is very difficult to imagine.

    Even more interestingly, if someone felt that a received rejection letter had a broader public interest, showing its full contents may also fit into the fair use exemption, so as to provide the chance for a full record to be provided into the issue under public discussion. Reprinting the New Yorker cover while discussing its racist imagery is clearly fair use, even if the New Yorker or the cover’s creator was to vehemently object that they weren’t racists, and only people buying the magazine were entitled to a copy of the cover.

    Copyright was never intended to be a muzzle, a truth that American courts have been quite clear on for decades.

  32. I can’t get past the fact that my brain only sees a power-trio hair-band when I read “Helix.” As a Canadian, I’ll apologize for Celine Dion, but I refuse to apologize for Helix!

    Ahem. To try and stay somewhat on-topic, I’m not sure how one can copyright a letter. I mean, sure, it’s strictly a /creation/ and the author immediate receives those rights under the Berne Convention (and the many Sons of Berne that have followed). I’m just not sure personal communication can be licensed in this manner without stepping on the rights of the receiver.

    For example, most companies tell you that when you send them letters for whatever reason, those letters belong to them. They disclose this as a courtesy, I understand, and pretty much can do anything with your words without your permission except misrepresent them or profit directly from them.

    Similarly, the modern notion of email means that most of us are free to do with incoming screeds as we see fit. Many web sites have a Going Postal section where they make fun of the angry emails they get. This does not contravene any international copyright law I am aware of.

    Similarly, in most cases (i.e., there wasn’t a previous non-disclosure arrangement of some sort [unless the submission of a manuscript and subsequent responses constitute such an NDA]) any real letter I receive becomes mine to use, pretty much copyright-free.

    Since copyright exists to balance the rights of authorship with the need to share, I suspect there is some legal balance here, the details of which I am ignorant of.

    Still, it cannot be that a rejection letter is actually copyrighted material where only the most strict notions of fair-use could be claimed, if at all. If this were the case, we’d all be criminals.

    In my case, I grant this might be more true than you know. But you guys? It’s unpossible.

  33. “…well, some people just *have* to piss up a rope…”

    Thank you for this succinct phrasing of a lesson I’m trying to teach my kids to ease their way in life. It may be a few years before I’m ready to explain this particular phrasing to them, but it’s still useful as a guide for what I’m trying to convey.