Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Teacher Suspended, Travel Restricted, Police Raid Home -- for Writing Novel

Sometimes you wonder if those who run police departments, those who run our schools, have
ever read the First Amendment. Indeed, sometimes you wonder if they have ever read anything at all.

A teacher has been suspended, taken into custody and subjected to psychiatric examination. Where did such an outrage occur? The Soviet Union in the days of Solzhenitsyn? North Korea?  Maybe Iran?

Nope.  It took place just a few days ago in Maryland.  Maryland in the Good Ol' Frickin' First Amendment U S of A.

The current online Atlantic Magazine contains one of the most disturbing stories I have ever read. And if you care anything about writing, and the right to write, you should be disturbed, too. To read the full article, CLICK HERE.

Patrick McLaw, a 23-year-old middle school English teacher at Lane Middle School in Cambridge, Maryland has been taken into custody, suspended from his teaching job, and forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation for writing a novel.  Police have used K-9 dogs and searched his house and the school.  They proudly announced that Mr. McLaw "does not have the ability to travel anywhere."

The Insurrectionist, published under the pseudonym Dr. K. S. Voltaer, is set 900 years in the future. Following the largest mass killing at a school in history, agents of a secret government agency begin tracing clues that lead to threats for an even larger mass-killing at the nation's largest school.  The book was published in 2011 by Northern Imperial Publishing, and is available on Amazon.

I haven't read the book, so I don't know how good it is. But It sounds like a decent premise for a futuristic thriller.

But because the subject of the  novel is a mass school killing -- 900 years in the future! -- the school district suspended Mr. McLaw, he was thrown in a psyche ward, and police are investigating, including a complete search of the school which according to cow-towing local media, a sweep of the Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, which turned up nothing.

Gee.  Imaging that.

I recently met Tricia Fields, the Hillerman Award-winning author of The Territory. It is a taut thriller set among drugs and guns along the Texas-Mexico border.  Tricia's day-job is at a small town Indiana school corporation. Good thing she isn't teaching in Maryland or she would be suspended, and the school system would be searched for drugs and guns.

After all, she wrote about that.

But there's more.  Mr. McLaw used "aliases."  In fact, the local newspaper (which should be ashamed of its coverage), began with the lead calling McLaw "a man with many names."

Of course, in the literary world, publishing a book under a different name is referred to as a pen names, or sometimes pseudonym, not an alias.  And it is a common practice for many reasons. Sometimes it is to change gender. Sometimes it is for marketing. Sometimes it is because you are writing something that is outside your profession or your general area in which you write.

Mary Ann Evans could not get published as a woman, so she wrote Silas Marner under the pen name George Elliott.  Stephen King published many books, including some of his best short writing, under the name Richard Bachman.  Of course, perhaps America's greatest novelist was Samuel Clemens, who never published a book under his real name, using the moniker from the riverboat days of his youth - Mark Twain.

The list of pen names is nearly endless.

But so too is the absurdity of small minded people.

Maybe a remedial course in fundamental civil liberties might be in order in eastern Maryland.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Using Blog Post As Evidence Is Fair Use; Not Prohibited Copyright Violation

A blog post can be used in its entirety as evidence without violating the author's copyright. That's the ruling of the United States District Court in Northern Illinois in the case of Denison v. Larkin.

The case came up in an unusual fashion. Denison, an Illinois attorney, was charged with a disciplinary offense for scathing posts accusing the Cook County Illinois Probate Court and its guardian ad litem of corruption, elder abuse, and taking action that physically and emotionally harmed her 90-year-old Mary Sykes.

Denison was charged with violating the Code of Professional Conduct by her accusations. Setting aside the First Amendment issue (which is substantial), Denison challenged the action by suing her accusers in federal court for violating her copyright by utilizing the entirety of her blog post in the disciplinary complaint.

Judge Amy J. St. Eve of the Northern District of Illinois had no problem finding for the defendants and dismissing Denison's complaint.  The Court discussed the touchstones for determining whether something falls within fair use:  The purpose and character of the use; the nature of the work; the amount of the work used; and the market effect.  The court found that under the facts of the case, each of these factors favored the defendants.

Perhaps more importantly, the court noted that in enacting the Copyright law, the House Judiciary Committee stated that "reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports" is fair use. Further, the U.S. Seventh Circuit (the circuit in which Illinois is located) has held that "reproducing copyrighted works for litigation is an example of the fair use doctrine."

So when you write that blog, remember that it could someday be labeled Exhibit A.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Dark Knight Gets A "Clean Slate": Lawyers, Batgirl & Fictional Technology

Wonder why lawyers seem so "anal" over intellectual property rights?  Here's an example.
Dirksen Building - home of 7th Circuit Court of Appeals

During the mega-hit movie "The Dark Knight Rises," Catwoman extracts a promise from Batman for her help -- a "clean slate" removing her entire criminal history from every law enforcement computer in the world.  After her contribution to saving Gotham, Bruce Wayne makes sure Catwoman's criminal history is erased from every computer.

But suprise! There actually is a product called Clean Slate.  And Fortres Grand, maker of the software, has lawyers.

And those lawyers sued Warner Brothers asserting that the fictional "clean slate" alluded to in the movie would cause confusion with its own software, a utility that "cleans" the history from your web browser.

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago held for the film makers, ruling that there was not a substantial risk of confusion cause by the fictional reference to a clean slate in the Batman movie. Judge Manion, writing for the Court, found that the software company's allegation of reverse confusion was "implausible."

So Warner Brothers won. But at what cost?  First there are lawyers fees that can ratchet up at $500 to $1,000 an hour for big firm partners.  There there are expenses.  In addition to lawyer time, court reporters will charge perhaps $1,200 or more for the transcript of a day-long deposition. Then there are the hidden costs of lost time, productivity and energy of executives, in-house lawyers, risk management people, and others involved in the project who are dragged into the lawsuit.

The real lesson is that even the most innocent of references, even to a fictional "product", can bring down the wrath of intellectual property litigators and patent trolls.  It is why lawyers are often so cautious, even to the point of being perceived as "anal," in finding problems and issues where most people, including writers, see none.

While many lament that a lawyer "can find a gray cloud in every silver lining." that is often the most important part of what lawyers do.

photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/11004376983/">Ken Lund</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Disappearing Copyright

Want to write your own Sherlock Holmes story?  Or even publish your own favorite Sherlock Holmes stories?  Have at it. That's the ruling of the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has held that the copyright on Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective has lapsed and the characters and stories are now part of the public domain.

Just this week, the United States Supreme Court refused to stay the Seventh Circuit's decision pending the high court's decision on whether to hear the case.

The case arose out of two collection of short stories written by author Leslie Klinger.  The first book, A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon, was published in 2011 by Random House. Despite Klinger's objection, Random House paid a $5,000 royalty to the Doyle Estate to publish the book.

When Klingler and her new publisher, Pegasus Books, were ready to publish her sequel, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, they refused to pay the royalty and Doyle's estate sued.  And lost.

The last ten Sherlock Holmes stories remain under copyright protection.  The copyrights on those stories expire between 2018 and 2022.  But the character of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Lestrade and Moriarty are no longer under copyright protection -- unless the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case and reverses the Court of Appeals decision, something that is not expected.

For the Seventh Circuit's decision, CLICK HERE.

Note: There has been a paucity of posts on this blog over the past seven or eight months. I have been working on my own writing project, a second novel tentatively titled Deadly Innocence. That novel is now finished, so I hope to be posting on this blog more frequently.  That is, until another writing bug hits me.  -- SMT

*photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/vercettisworld/14154672292/">GregHausM.D.</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

Monday, March 10, 2014

Considering Amtrak Writer's Program - Here's Something to Think About

Amtrak is offering a type of writers in residence program.  Blogger Steve Harper Piziks took a closer look at the fine print in the application and had some interesting observations.  

Here's the Link to the post on Steve Harper Piziks' blog.  It's worth a look.  CLICK HERE.

Thanks to Mary Mascari for pointing this out on FaceBook.

NOTE:  By the way, for those who have followed this blog, you will note the paucity of posts over the past few months.  I've been playing writer myself, working on my second novel.  The rough draft is nearly done, so I hope to be posting a bit more frequently in the months ahead. Of course there is still much rewriting to be done. -- SMT

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/justininsd/6068358960/">Justin in SD</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Courtney Love Wins Defense Verdict in Twibel Suit by Her Former Lawyer

What do you get when you Tweet a purported libelous statement?  Twibel, of course.

Last week rock star Courtney Love went to trial last week in one of the nation's first, and certainly most publicized, case of libel over Twitter.  She was accused of defaming her own lawyer in a series of 2010 tweets.

After only three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict for Love and against the plaintiff, her former lawyer Rhonda J. Holmes.  The lawyer had been hired to pursue fraud claims against those handling the estate of Love's late husband, Kurt Cobain, the legendary lead singer of Nivana who committed suicide.  But Ms. Love posted a series of tweets inferring implying that Ms. Holmes mishandled the matter.

The problem with attacking a lawyer on Twitter -- lawyers know the way to the courthouse.

The jury concluded that Ms. Love made the Tweets, but that the plaintiff failed to prove that Love knew the statements were false by the enhanced clear and convincing standard, a necessary element in a lawsuit by a limited purpose public figure such as Ms. Holmes.

No word yet on whether there will be an appeal.

Love is not a stranger to being sued for Tweets.  In March, 2011 she settled a defamation lawsuit by fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir for $430,000 stemming from tweets that accused the designer of theft and having a criminal background.

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/caliorg/6882839119/">cali.org</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

Friday, January 24, 2014

Writing Blog Can Get You Thrown in Jail -- At Least in Alabama

Alabama blogger Roger Shuler has been sitting in the Shelby County, Alabama Jail for five
months -- for blogging.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he is the only person in the Western Hemisphere imprisoned for something he has written.

Now Mr. Shuler isn't your ordinary blogger.  He has repeatedly been involved in legal battles and sued for defamation since he started his blog in 2007.  Initially the blog was an outlet for a property dispute with his neighbor.  Mr. Shuler ended up on the short end of the case, and the neighbor's lawyer now owns half of Mr. Shuler's home.

Shuler continued to rant against courts, the police and a variety of public officials, including Alabama Governor Bob Riley. Example: writing that a sitting federal judge appeared in a gay pornographic magazine. Class guy, this Mr. Shuler.

He has repetitively been sued for his blog posts, often successfully.  The judgments against him have taken their financial toll, to the point where he no longer can afford internet service and now posts from public computers in public libraries. But he continues undeterred.

Fast forward to an article Shuler posted claiming that the governor's son, Robert Riley Jr., got aptly named lobbyist Liberty Duke pregnant and paid for an abortion.  Riley and Duke not only denied the pregnancy and abortion, they denied they had ever been alone together in the same room.

Here's were things get really interesting -- and according to many First Amendment scholars and lawyers -- a bit out of hand.  State District Judge Robert Jackson issues an injunction against Shuler prohibiting him from making anymore "defamatory statements" about Mr. Riley and Ms. Duke.

First Amendment experts are unanimous that the order was unconstitutional and a violation of Mr. Shuler's First Amendment rights.

Ignoring the games Mr. Shuler played trying to avoid service of the order, Mr. Shuler continued to   publish venomous posts about the pair. 

The result:  Judge Jackson held Shuler in contempt and ordered him jailed.

That was in October.  And Mr. Shuler is still there.

Clearly Mr. Shuler is not the good guy here.  He has abused his rights.  He has defamed people causing them personal pain and suffering all for his own small-minded baseless vendettas.  But on the other hand, he is in jail because of an unconstitutional judicial order prohibiting free speech.

It's all ugly, and shows no signs of getting resolved.  And meanwhile, Mr. Shuler sits in a United States jail for what he wrote.

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stillburning/46446926/">Still Burning</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Blogger's First Amendment Rights Upheld

Bloggers can rest easier as they post articles from their computers.  They have equal First Amendment rights with trained journalists.

That was the recent decision of the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a defamation lawsuit brought against a blogger in California.  The decision went even further, confirming that First Amendment rights are applicable to everyone, and that everyday citizens and Pulitizer Prize-winning journalists journalists all possess the same rights under the First Amendment.

The unanimous 9th Circuit decision reversed a $2.5 million judgment against blogger Crystal Cox by Obsidian Finance Group and its co-founder Kevin Padrick.  The verdict followed a nearly inexplicable District Court opinion allowing the case to go to trial on the basis that Ms Cox could not produce evidence that he was a trained journalists engaged in that profession, that he could not claim the First Amendment protection of the New York Times v. Sullivan case. 

For the decision in Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox, CLICK HERE.

For most First Amendment lawyers, the surprise was not the 9th Circuit's reversal, but the District Court's original decision, which seemed to go against a half-century of law to the contrary, although seldom applied to the new technology of blogging.

The lawsuit arose from a post by Ms Cox accusing Obsidian and Padrick of tax fraud in the handing of a company that was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

The 9th Circuit covers most of the western-most United States, including California.  The United States Circuit Courts of Appeal are the second highest federal courts, next to the US Supreme Court.

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/2620666620/">Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>