06 April 2006

Feeding Frenzy

Two divergent stories reflect different "feeding frenzy" aspects of writing. One is merely amusing, and reflects Babbitt-like boosterism more than anything else; the other is on its face just another story of greed, raising the question of whose greed it is.

I'm no Luddite. Hell, I've got thirty-year-old soldering scars from assembling an Altair 5000. One "development" that I'm not in favor of, though, is the so-called "e-book reader." After the wretched failure of that type of device at the end of the last century, one might think that major electronics companies would rethink their strategies. One would be wrong. Sony has now attempted to introduce a new e-book reader in a fashion that makes all of the same mistakes made by Rocket (et al.). The most obvious problem is that the technology has all of the problems as did earlier readers. One can't take it to the beach, or read in the bathtub, without risking the device. That, of course, presumes that one can read it at all: It continues to utilize refractive display technology, which is anathema to those of us who need bifocals (and that proportion of the population is only going to increase as the median demographics age), and relies upon battery technology that has not improved all that much.

Technical factors aside, though, the real killer of e-book devices is going to be the price point. Sony's selling price appears to be in the $300 range (or slightly more), or about ten to twelve current casebound trade books. That doesn't sound too bad, does it? The problem is that it grievously misunderstands its audience. The primary audience for brand-new-releases that also buys enough books to make that a worthwhile investment tends to buy those books for their collections, not for casual reading. No, the actual audience for these readers is the purchaser of mass-market paperback editions who (consciously or not) resents the overpricing of casebound trade books. Ten to twelve of those translates to a selling price for the reader in the $80 range… and that's assuming that there is adequate text available for those readers in the first place, because this audience tends to be voracious.1 This audience also tends to be much more fond of all-in-one multitasking technical solutions, but that's an argument for another time.

The story of greed concerns a just-filed lawsuit alleging plagiarism of a script in a recent Hollywood film. There are a couple of twists in this saga that might make it even more interesting than it might otherwise seem. To begin with, the suit was filed in Paris by a French writer against a US-produced film—that was nominated for an Oscar for its scriptwriting. Syriana (due out on DVD on 20 June 2006) concerns skullduggery, deception, hidden agendas, and ruthlessness in Southwest Asian oil production, wherease this lawsuit appears to concern skullduggery, deception, hidden agendas, and ruthlessness in Hollywood oiliness. What I find most interesting about this matter is the difference between French and US law on "access" as an element of copyright infringement. Had the suit been filed in the US, the French writer would have been required to prove that the infringing writer had access not just to a precís of her script while writing the script for Syriana, but to the complete script itself. French law, however, is much less strict in the access requirement; it allows a certain level of similarity to create a presumption of access. This matter may well turn on the doctrine of scenes á faire, because the French writer's assertion is that certain scenes that were not in the book upon which Syriana was (purportedly, for the purpose of this lawsuit) based appeared in her script and in the film. I've seen this assertion too many times to be more than cautious about it; in my experience these "similarities" are far more common than one actually hears about, but that the incidents one hears about are vastly overblown (see, for example, the Dan Brown fiasco now playing in London). But then, I'm one of those silly people who thinks that one should look at the facts before screaming "plagiarism," so I'm obviously not qualified to judge this matter.

  1. Which, in turn, implicates the question of whether there will be an adequate selection of e-books for this audience to read. It's not as simple as just converting the backlist, although that is eventually going to be necessary; most contracts written before 1998, and virtually all contracts written before 1992, simply do not give that right to the publisher. Remember Tasini?