Purloined porn

Writers of erotica love giving away their steamy stories online, but watch in horror as their work is then stolen by rogue Web sites and fans.

Published October 10, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

"Delta's" erotic fiction is a sweltering realm of flickering candlelight, undone bikini tops, king-size beds and horny hitchhikers. The Canadian erotica writer pens whack-off tales with titles like "Strip Chess," "The Chambermaid," "Fire and Ice" and "Revenge Is a Dish Best Served." Like hundreds of other amateur erotica writers, she posts her stories for free on Usenet groups like alt.sex.stories, in search of an eager audience for her smutty words.

The arrangement seems like the happiest of only-on-the-Net economies: Writers whose work lacks a traditional market distribute their words themselves and find an audience, while the randy readers enjoy a free literary frolic. It's a cheap -- and safely anonymous -- way for these authors (many of whom, like Delta, write under pseudonyms) to reach their readers. Sex stories for all! Free the smut!

The cold realities of publishing online, however, are anything but a turn-on for Delta.

"Every time I post a story, I know it will be used in a manner in which I would not have it used. It will be stolen," she says. Now that she has discovered where her words end up after she sets them free -- in the greedy hands of a few rogue adult-site operators looking to make a buck or reposted around the Net without her name, copyright information or even the complete text of the story -- she has cut back dramatically on putting her stories online at all. Every time she puts up a new one, she says, "I regret it."

"It may be great exposure for Delta if greatbigboobsandhardsex.com puts my story on their site, but I'd rather not be associated with sites like that," she laments, "and I certainly don't want my name used to attract other readers to their site."

Like open-source hackers who are "paid" by the reputation they develop among their peers, writers of erotic fiction who give away their stories are paid in the adulation and constructive criticism showered on them by their fans. Getting stripped of that credit often galls as much as missing out on any monetary compensation for their work. "For many here, the only 'pay' we get (besides seeing our stories 'up in lights') is feedback from the few who are considerate enough to write," says Delta. "By removing the names and addresses of these authors, those who do so are effectively robbing us of our 'pay.'"

In contrast to the online music wars -- in which a whole multibillion-dollar commercial industry is screaming bloody murder -- you're unlikely to see any congressional hearings on online erotica copyright disputes. "I find it hard to believe that someone like George Bush Jr. would stand up in front of the media and proclaim that those poor authors on alt.sex.stories are being screwed by unscrupulous copyright infringers," quips Delta. But like the debate over music file swapping, the unsexy copyright issues around publishing erotica online raise questions about how much control artists can really have over their work in a medium in which copying is essentially free and potentially infinite.

If you set your smut free, can you control it ever again?

"Katie McN," author of "A Girl's Stroke Story," "Making the Grade" and "Country Club Dance," is one of the heavyweights of the online erotica world. She has been nominated for seven Golden Clitorides Awards, online porno writers' equivalent of the Oscars. By her own estimates, in aggregate her stories are downloaded more than a million times per year from Usenet and the five sites she has given posting permission to. But she knows her work can also be found elsewhere: "Based on e-mail from fans and other authors, it appears that my stories appear without permission on at least 30 more sites and probably a lot more," she says.

Commercial "skimmers" scoop up these free-for-all fantasies and then repackage them in an attempt to make a profit. One smutty-story thief grabbed up literally hundreds of tales of busting bodices, cracking whips and aching loins and packaged them on a CD-ROM. The same brazen thief even advertised the stories for sale on the very newsgroup that they'd been lifted from. Frequently, these porn pilferers remove the author's name, the story's title or the copyright information to make it harder for the writer to find his or her lifted works. As Katie McN explains, it helps "to slow down the process where the author finds out and attempts to do something about it."

But Katie McN doesn't spend a lot of energy going after the story stealers. There's too little money, if any, at stake. When erotica writers do succeed in selling their work online, they're paid only a small sum for first publication rights, and in all likelihood the stories will end up freely posted on Usenet within months. Plus, Katie McN doesn't want to risk giving away who she really is: "I don't plan on revealing my identity because I'd rather not have people in raincoats showing up at my home. How could I take any legal action and maintain my cover?"

Katie McN and other authors attest that the most effective way to fight back when their stories are lifted is for a group of writers to complain en masse to the offending Web site or take their grievance to that site's Web host.

But sometimes, given the sleaziness of the story cribbers, such appeals have little effect. If a rogue site is booted by its Web host for violating copyright, within 24 hours that company can set up business with another host. Delta reports that the CD-ROM release containing her work (and the work of many others) is still for sale, despite numerous complaints to the offending site, the BackDrop Club. BackDrop did not respond to requests for comment.

Estimates of how much story lifting goes on vary, with some authors calling it "pretty widespread" and others contending that "most commercial sites abide by the law." One difficulty in coming up with hard numbers is that the sites in question are largely pay-per-view, a reality that makes it hard -- and expensive -- for authors to police the Net looking for purloined porn. "Mr. Slot," an Australian erotica writer who goes the extra step of making stories like "Librarian I" and "Truth or Dare III" available for the Palm Pilot, says: "We can't buy membership to every site just to make sure they don't misuse our stories, and although people have hacked into the sites in question to check, there's just too many of them." He points out that not only is the writer being ripped off, the reader is as well -- in being charged for something that has been given away by the author.

Writers' views of what rights can be practically enforced on the Net vary wildly. In the newsgroup alt.sex.stories.d, a community of erotic writers meets to talk shop, but discussions about copyright infringement frequently erupt into flame wars.

A vocal minority takes the position that anything posted on Usenet is a gift that essentially exists in the public domain. And when caught red-handed, the offending story pilferers often cite such Net rhetoric as their dubious defense. Other authors, including Delta, claim the full rights of any writer, yet have a tough time enforcing this dominion over their words. Others fall somewhere in the middle, authorizing any noncommercial reproduction of their work -- like a fan posting an erotic story to her own home page -- but drawing the line against commercial sites eager to profit off their work. Although they attach notices to this effect at the beginning of every story, these statements about permissions are just erased by the first reposter, making the story ripe for further lifting.

The erotic nature of the content just complicates the matter. Like open-source hackers who improve upon one another's code, fans of particular stories sometimes rewrite them to cater to their own carnal predilections. So a gay scenario might become a straight one, or names and even physiques might change: "Back-space the bulging biceps, I like 'em languid and scrawny." Is such "improvement" -- sculpting a fantasy to one's own tastes -- blatant plagiarism or just fans' enthusiastic tribute to how much a story touched them and turned them on?

Fred von Lohmann, a copyright expert in the San Francisco law offices of Morrison & Foerster, emphasizes that these authors do have legal recourse, should they choose to pursue it. "These stories are copyrighted expression, and the author who wrote it owns it," he says. He recommends amending a copyright notice, as many authors already do, to every work posted, specifying how it may and may not be used.

At one of the main archives of erotic stories online, the nonprofit Alt Sex Stories Text Repository appends a reminder to the end of every story that notes that even if a story does not a have copyright notice on it, it's still copyrighted "pursuant of the Berne Convention." Essentially, it's copyrighted by default. Rey del Sexo, who maintains the archives, says that the ASSTR, which relies on donations from the public for its existence, doesn't have the financial resources to take up the cause of robbed authors in court, but adds, "This is something that we aspire to be able to do at some point in the future."

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a writer can send a notice to a site's Web host, formally complaining about a rogue site that has nabbed his or her work. If the host fails to take down the post, the host can be held liable in court for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per work, according to von Lohmann.

Still, the copyright lawyer understands how unappealing such litigiousness may be to an anonymous erotica scribe: "If you're writing freelance for fun for no money, the last thing that you want to do is spend your time pretending to be a lawyer."

A small subgroup of writers sees such legal dickering as a futile attempt to apply pre-Net copyright law to the new medium. "Nick Urfe" has been known to roil the other habituis of alt.sex.stories.d with his unpopular views on the topic: "I don't believe in intellectual property, per se. On the Net, the whole point is to instantaneously create as many copies as possible and disseminate them as widely as possible ... Approaching Internet distribution with a rules set informed by paper publishing is a guarantee of ulcers and frustration," he says.

He regards his stories as gifts and sees the reposting and mutation of the stories as a part of the basic Net ecology: "I feel that if you do have a problem with other people posting your stuff, you probably ought to rethink whether publishing on the Internet is right for you."

Delta has struggled with whether publishing on the Net really is right for her. She took a hiatus from publishing online for several months after discovering stories that she'd posted for free being sold.

"MichaelD," an author of erotica who happens to be a lawyer when he's not writing stories like "Eve of the Bad Girls" and "Virginity Is Curable, Inquire Within," takes a laissez-faire attitude to his work's being reposted. He says that he can rely on the more vigilant members of the story-writing community to raise a stink in the case of a mass theft, but "frankly, I don't care that much," he says. "It's a sort of a backhanded compliment to have your stories stolen, since it means someone thinks they're worth stealing. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I think the only thing worse than having your stuff stolen is not having it stolen."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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