Taking the Bread from HE's Table

Okay, look. I don't like playing the heavy. I pretty much think we should all get along, and information wants to be free, and all that.

But sometimes I gots to puts my feets down.

You see, here's the way it goes. I make computers go bleep-bleep just the right way for a living, so I'm fairly cavalier about letting people appropriate my images and words. I have never denied a request to reproduce anything I've done. However, as the webmaster of Harlan Ellison's homepage, I have to adopt a slightly different attitude. What Harlan writes is what puts bread on the his and his wife's table, and when he says he doesn't want anyone else chopping off a slice or two, well, I've gotta respect his wishes.

So what do I do? Mainly, nothing. Every once in a while I'll find something questionable on the Net and report it, and it's very rarely anything to worry about. Occasionally the phone will ring and it's Harlan all upset over someone reproducing his script to I, Robot on the Net until I tell him that this "Pathfinder" he's talking about is Time Warner's Website and he recalls he gave them permission to excerpt the script.

I also am fairly scrupulous about avoiding copyright infringement on my own site. I include only stuff Harlan has personally given me and limit my use of other Ellison material to brief quotations. I'd love beyond measure to get a few of his stories online, but I respect his understandable concerns about that and I am willing to wait until I build up either the money or the sweat equity to afford the cost.

However, on rare occaisions I find something that is a bonafide rip-off of HE's work, and it's my sad duty to inform the man about it and watch the fireworks show.

First case in point: a probably likeable young man named David Hardman (vertigo@cs.mcgill.ca), a computer major at McGill University in Montreal, is (or was) a fan of Harlan and/or his computer game I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream. David was kind enough to give the game and the story it is based on press on his homepage.

Unfortunately, he went about it in exactly the wrong way.

A company named Cyberdreams produced an adventurish computer game based on one of Harlan's most famous short stories, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream. Cyberdreams is distributed by the Interactive Arm of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and has pages dedicated to the game on MGM's website. Included in those pages was a downloadable version of the short story in its entirely. It may still be there, although it was only supposed to be available for a limited time (long since passed) and Harlan has asked them to remove it. It's a great story, and I'm glad to see it was online for a while.

Mr. Hardman was glad it was there, too. So much so that he appropriated the whole page containing the story, lock, stock, and barrel, and placed it in his own directory at McGill, with links to it from his home page. Yesterday (October 16th, as I write this) you would have seen the story online had you gone to http://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~vertigo/nomouth.html. Now, you'll see this:

File missing!

Well, you'll see something like that. Not all of you use Netscape, although you should. Anyway, you get the point. It's gone now.

What happened? Well, shortly after I informed Harlan that this page existed, he went after McGill University like he was shot out of a cannon. As Harlan recollects:
When it was sent that David Hardman at the address you gave has taken I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, I followed up on it. I got someone to find their number from the website and called McGill University's computer science school and explained the problem to them. Later that night (9:30 my time in LA) I got a call from Luc Boulianne, the Assistant Manager of the School of Computer Science. Luc removed the page and talked to Hardman the very same day and told him he would be expelled from the school if he did something like this again. This should be fair warning to anyone who wants to play at this game.

This is the equivalent of someone calling me up and saying "Hey Ellison, you got a car?", and when I reply "Yes" they say "Great, I need a car for a few hours and I'll be coming by to take it". Well, the story is mine, and you can't some and take it for a few hours. I don't mean any harm, but I don't want anyone fucking with my material.
That's not all Harlan has to say on the subject, but it gets ugly from this point on. I did write David Hardman asking him to call Ellison about this, and got back an e-mail explaining his sysadmin had removed the page. More than that, I don't know. But do remind me to tell you what I did to the poor sap who stole a picture from one of my pages of me and Scooby Doo at Universal Studios and placed it on his page claiming it was a picture of him and the Scoobster...

Second case in point: Earlier this month, and again earlier this month, and twice more later this month, I received this and similar e-mails from the same person:
Maybe you didn't received my first message (10.1.1996). I try again : I wrote a script out of Harlan's short story High Dice for a low budget production. I'd like to ask him who owns the rights to make a cinematographic adaptation in France.

Can you please forward him my request and ask him to contact me on this mail or on the following adress: [withheld]
You're damn right he'll contact you.

I get one or two messages like this a month. Now, I was fairly ignorant on this subject until recently, but I'm assuming these people who send e-mails like this have teachers of their respective writing/film courses who should be explaining that one does not write a script or treatment without permission.

What you do do is, you write the author of the original piece and you say "I would like to write a movie script/play/song/whatever based on this story". You then depend upon fate, finance, and the kindness of the author for the success of your entreaty. If you're lucky, the piece is not already under option and the price is right.

I have forwarded such requests to HE in the past. Sometimes he approves them, most of the time he does not (he says about 1 in 10 are approved). Harlan says it depends mainly on the person's professionalism, the venue in which the piece will be shown/performed, and the reason for doing so.

So sure, you've got a shot. However, present the writer with a fait accompli, and your odds drop dramatically.

The rights to a writer's work belong to the writer alone. The writer (and only the writer) decides where, when, and how to rent or sell that work. I don't know any better way than this to get that point across to the guy in Poland who decides "Repent, Harlequin" had the wrong ending and writes one of his own (and distributes it), to the people on Usenet who claim Harlan has no right to have his unfinished manuscripts destroyed upon his death, to the web-page maintainer who decides to include Harlan's bible to The Starlost in its entirety online.

It ain't your toy, kid. You can look at it, you can play with it, but put it back in its box when you're done. Okay?

Return to the Harlan Ellison booth