Essayist Writes Popular Essay... Then Sends 'Non-Negotiable' Invoice To Church Who Posts It Online

from the how-nice-of-her dept

We've seen recently how some companies have turned copyright into something that certainly approximates a tool for extortion. Rather than threatening to break up your store with a baseball bat, they threaten to sue you if you don't pay them for infringing on their copyrights. Even in the cases where the copyright has been infringed, this whole process seems incredibly sleazy and underhanded -- and it's even worse when it's done against those who are clearly "accidental" or "unaware" infringers. Or you can take it even further: using this method to demand a non-negotiable payment from a church.

Reader Sam Cook writes in to let us know how a woman named Linda Amstutz is going around threatening pretty much anyone who posts her essay/poem called "If my body were a car." It's apparently one of those essays that gets regularly passed around the internet -- often without attribution. While you can understand why the author might get a bit upset about it getting passed around without attribution, it appears that Amstutz has taken it to another level. She could alert those who are posting it with the evidence that she's the author and ask, nicely, for proper attribution. She could also then use that fame and celebrity to get other commissioned writing projects, or maybe a book.

But no. She just sends them bills.

She (or, rather, her "literary agent" Mary Taylor Smith) sends nasty letters to people demanding immediate payment of $750, significantly more than anyone would ever pay for such reprint rights -- using the fact that statutory copyright infringement violations have a $750/infringement starting point (which, we already know is ridiculous). Of course, Taylor Smith never seems to suggest that anyone might have a fair use exemption. She just sends the letter and an invoice demanding payment.

A couple years ago, the well-known author Orson Scott Card found out about Amstutz and Taylor Smith's effort to abuse copyright law, and wrote up a blog post that pretty accurately described the picture. He notes that those who are posting the essay are almost certainly infringing on the copyright, but that's no excuse for Amstutz's actions, whom he refers to as "a moderately talented but extremely greedy, litigious, and self-righteous author:"
Now, her essay was originally published in Ozark Senior Living magazine. You can bet that she did not receive $750 for first publication. She may not have been paid at all.

Furthermore, $750 is a ridiculously high price for reprint rights for essays. I have stories reprinted all the time -- sometimes award-winning stories twenty times the length of "If My Body Were a Car," and for which I was originally paid many times $750. But the reprint rights usually go for $300 or less, and that's fair.

Besides the money, you see, I get to have that story out there collecting new readers for me...

The web is full of people who don't understand that websites are publications. Nobody gave them a course in copyright law before they put stuff up online. Most of them are decent folks who, as soon as someone tells them they're doing something wrong, will immediately correct their error.

But Amstutz is not interested in understanding human failings. Instead, she has seized upon a means of terrifying people into paying her ridiculous amounts of money.

It's as if you went into a store, inadvertently broke a vase worth $75, only to find that the store manager is going to make you pay $750 on the spot, or else you'll be hauled off to jail for vandalism and fined $30,000.

Yep. $30,000. Because that's what Mary Taylor Smith, Amstutz's agent, misleadingly tells you you'll have to pay. Here's her exact language: "The minimum damages for copyright infringement in a court of law is $750 and is punishable up to $30,000, plus attorney fees and court costs."

Yes, but that $30,000 is a maximum. There is zero chance that a rational court would charge a mom-and-pop non-profit website anywhere near that amount for infringing the copyright of a piece of writing that probably earned $100 or less on first publication. Especially when they took the essay down the moment they realized it was a copyright infringement.
Amstutz also has a rather obnoxious webpage up about this topic, saying that she's building a list of all the people who refused to pay and will soon sue them all (at which point she'll also "rescind" the invoice for $750, and try to get much more in court. She also has a "lesson" in copyright which gets a lot of the details wrong (she calls infringing stealing, makes no mention of fair use at all, and says you can never use someone else's words without permission, etc.)

Card points out that this does, indeed, feel like extortion, even if it is infringement:
Amstutz brags about just how much money she intends to extort from anyone who trips over her essay.

Because that's what it seems like to me: extortion. Yes, republishing her essay is an infringement of copyright. But most people who do it are ignorant of what they're doing. Amstutz preys on these people, hovering to see who falls into the trap, and then threatening them and bullying them to pay her far more than the reprint rights are worth, under threat of maximum fines they would never have to pay.

There are plenty of people like this in the world -- vultures who prey on people who make mistakes. I'll wager that Amstutz makes far more money from legal extortion than she makes as a writer. She has left writing far behind. Now she's just a bully, like a big kid threatening little kids so they'll turn over their lunch money.
Card, as he did when JK Rowling started bullying the author of the Harry Potter Lexicon, points out how unoriginal the idea of Amstutz essay is in the first place. He points out that plenty of others have written similar things. While he says, correctly, that this doesn't change the fact that her specific expression is covered by copyright, it does raise questions about why Amstutz thinks her work is so special. His suggested solution: stop posting or forwarding her writings and return her "to obscurity where she belongs."

Finally, he shows how an author should respond to such flattery, by granting everyone the right to forward his works online, as long as they properly credit it. He does ask that people ask permission to repost his essays, but says he'll often grant the right, free of charge with little hassle.

Filed Under: copyright, fair use, if my body were a car, invoices, linda amstutz, mary taylor smith, orson scott card

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Nov 2009 @ 10:43am

    Re: Amazon and Border's

    She has a rather awful blog, too.

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