When Alexandra Elbakyan opened her Sci-Hub site earlier this year, making over 48 million for-purchase journal articles publicly available for free, she was slapped with a hefty lawsuit from Elsevier and thorough media attention to match. During the case, Elbakyan was even compared to English folklore character, Robin Hood, after dismissing legal requests made by a New York district court to take down the stolen work. Whether you consider her a brazen thief, poor struggling student who deserves sympathy, or a loose Robin Hood-Pirate hybrid, one thing is true: law suits over content use haven’t gone away and recent news suggests that rules are still being written regarding publicly available work–free for public consumption or not.
In very recent publishing news, Seth Grahame-Smith has reportedly been caught in a brutal half-million lawsuit for his book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In the mashup generation, Hatchette officials balked at closing the $4 million dollar deal they had with the author when what they claimed to have received was “an appropriation of a 120-year-old public-domain work”, not new work. According to Hatchette, the derivative work was a breach of Grahame-Smith’s contract that required him to write original work for the publisher and lawsuit transpired at the end of August.
Publishing giant, Hachette is not new to the court room due to contract breaches, however. Just two years ago it was involved in an ugly lawsuit with Amazon. Earlier this year, it sued former Sony CEO, Tommy Mottola for failing to deliver a manuscript.
The lawsuit against Grahame-Smith poses some interesting questions. How did Grahame-Smith’s book make it from proposal, through a team of editors, and all the way to print if it is as unoriginal as Hatchette claims? To strengthen their cause for the lawsuit Hatchette claims to have been truly unpleased with what Grahame-Smith delivered on many fronts, besides the quality of the work being too close to Jane Austen’s work; the word count wasn’t what they had expected and his manuscript was late according to the contract. And if Grahame-Smith is now in the center of a lawsuit revolving how he used–or failed to use–public domain work, what does it mean for other authors that do similar work? Take for example, Gregory Maguire, who after much success with his Wizard of Oz inspired novel, Wicked, is now working on an Alice in Wonderland inspired book. If public domain work is indeed abandoned by intellectual property law then how should work be measured so that it’s derivative enough to be new?
The digital age—a time where we can share tons of information in seconds—has definitely brought up questions about how we should be sharing information, who has the authority to control information, and what we’re allowed to do with it–free or not.