Pluralistic: 04 Oct 2021

Today's links

Stationers’ Register entry for the transfer of Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and twelve other books in 1607.

Podcasting "Take It Back" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "Take It Back," my Medium essay, "Take it back: Copyright reversion, bargaining power, and authors’ rights," all about the obscure, but increasingly exciting realm of copyright termination at reversion.

What's copyright termination? Under US law, creators can file paperwork after 35 years and get their copyrights back, no matter what kinds of contracts they've signed. That's vital, because creators generally negotiate from a position of weakness.

Take Superman creators Siegel and Schuster. They were just two of a vast cohort of would-be comic book contributors. DC had a buyers' market for their creation. They signed away their rights to Superman for $130, and died in poverty.

Normally, the way this works is that an investor (publisher, label, studio, etc) who strikes a bargain with a creator whose work makes it big gets to make out like a bandit, and the creator's consolation prize is that they can shop their next project around for top dollar.

For example, The Beatles' early record contract paid the Fab Four one penny per record sold. They split that penny four ways, but only after the label took out fifteen percent for "promotions."

Sure, those mega-platinum top sellers meant The Beatles could negotiate better deals for their later deals, but for those early money-spinners, fractional pennies were all they could hope for.

That's where reversion kicks in. Only a tiny minority of works have any commercial life after 35 years, but those are also the works that generate the lion's share of the income for the investor orgs, and not all of those creators have a second act.

Many of them are like Superman's Siegel and Schuster – creative teams with one big score that makes billions for their investors, who themselves languish in poverty and die in misery and obscurity. That's one place where termination can make a difference.

If Siegel and Schuster had been able to revert their rights – or even credibly threaten to do so – DC/Warner would have coughed up enough money to see the pair through to a comfortable dotage and a fair share in the returns from their labor.

It wasn't to be. When Marc Toberoff went to court on behalf of Siegel and Schuster's heirs to get their rights back, Warners went scorched earth in retaliation, suing Toberoff for having the audacity to challenge their perpetual billion-dollar right to their $130 Superman.

Toberoff lost, but today he's representing the heirs of the most prolific Marvel creators, including Stan Lee himself, in a bid to claw back the Marvel pantheon from Disney. Disney has hired Toberoff's Superman nemesis, Dan Petrocelli, to represent it.

Toberoff's 2014 suit on behalf of the Superman creators was before its time. Today, the currents are shifting. Antitrust has emerged from a 40-year, Reagan-inspired doldrums, and become a muscular, relentless force for labor rights.

Victor Miller, creator of the Friday the 13th franchise, just won a bid to terminate his copyright transfer to the films' producers, in a surprise upset with far-reaching implications.

Termination is fascinating, because it's a counter-monopolistic right, unlike copyright itself. Copyright is "alienable," and can be signed away. In monopolized entertainment markets, that means that copyright is almost always transferred from creators to investors.

In a monopolized market, giving creators more copyright is like giving your bullied kid more lunch money. The bullies who control the school-gates aren't gonna let junior hang onto the extra money you slipped him – they're going to take that, too.

So when we give creators more copyright – longer terms, the right to control new uses like sampling – all we're really doing is giving labels and studios and publishers more rights, which they non-negotiably acquire as a condition of permitting access to artistic markets.

Termination and reversion are fundamentally different – they're a way to let (some) creators negotiate from a position of strength: now that their work is a commercial success, they can demand compensation, on pain of clawing their rights back.

My colleague Rebecca Giblin and her collaborators recently published a groundbreaking study documenting the use of termination in US copyrights, and the incredibly bureaucratic hurdles that stand in the way of creators getting their due.

They show how creators from George RR Martin to Stephen King to David Eddings have taken their rights back – and how prolific writers like Francine Pascal (Sweet Valley High) and Ann Martin (Babysitters Club) have taken back their rights on an industrial scale.

Most successful was George Clinton, who terminated the copyright transfers to 1,413 songs, which had been stolen from him by a scamming ex-manager – obviating years of expensive litigation.

Termination is a way to turn copyright into a labor right. Shortening the termination right – say, to 20 years, or even 14, the original term of US copyright – would let creators, rather than their descendants, make extensive use of it.

And while nonprofits like the Authors Alliance have done excellent work in automating termination, the fact remains that the process is too onerous and needs reform.

But as I say in my podcast introduction, any reform to copyright termination needs to take account of what Yochai Benkler calls "commons-based peer production" – free/open source software and Creative Commons content.

It's one thing to rebalance the lopsided negotiating leverage between creators and investors – and another to let some rando who contributed 7 out of 1,000,000 lines of code terminate their free software license and create legal liability for billions of users.

That's not an insurmountable hurdle – but failing to deal with it could create yet another senseless division between free culture advocates and people who advocate for fair creative livelihoods – when in reality, their interests are aligned.

Here's the notes for this episode:

Here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS for my podcast:

The cover for 'Savage Love A-Z.'

Savage Love A-Z (permalink)

Like so many, I started reading Dan Savage for prurient kicks – every week, I'd pick up Toronto's free weekly NOW Magazine and check the club listings, movie reviews, municipal scandal reporting, and then I'd look around the subway car before turning to his syndicated Savage Love column.

Savage's sex advice column exposed (!) me to a much wider spectrum of human sexuality than I encountered even in the radical, politicized, sex-positive, queer-friendly circles I ran in, and Savage's frank, fully, raunchy and empathic replies were even more eye-opening.

That's Savage's brilliant bait-and-switch: come for graphic sexual content, stay for thoughtful and well-thought-through philosophy – a philosophy that is forgiving when it needs to be (see, e.g., Savage's famous tolerance for cheating as more normal than anyone admits).

But also blistering when warranted, as with Savage's catchphrase "Dump the motherfucker already" (abbreviate to DTMFA to preserve space in his syndicated column), with which he chides people who are trying to make it work with someone who is fundamentally unworkable.

For more than a decade, Savage has run a wildly successful and even more entertaining podcast version of his column, the Savage Lovecast, featuring guest-experts, recorded audience reactions, and Savage's acerbic and charming narration.

With his frank sexual language and graphic descriptions, Savage is an unlikely culture-maker, but also a wildly successful one. Just consider the many coinages he's introduced to everyday English.

These include the political ("santorum: the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex," named for homophobic senator Rick Santorum) and the sexual ("pegging: when a man is anally penetrated by a woman wearing a strap-on dildo").

But most of all, Savage-isms are about the place where relationships and sex meet: "GGG" ("good, giving and game"), "the campsite rule" ("older partners' responsibility to leave younger partners in at least as good a shape as they were in when you began your relationship").

These get to the core of Savage's mission and the secret to his enduring success: they acknowledge that sex is important to most adults' lives, and set out to make people happy about their sexual selves, by being kind to the people they have sex with.

Beyond his columns, podcasts and film-festivals, Savage has published many books about sex and relationships, but his latest, "Savage Love A-Z" is my new favorite.

As the title suggests, the book is an illustrated, alphabetical tour through the concepts and tropes of Savage's decades-long corpus of sexual wisdom, humor and learning (including many frank admissions of where he got it wrong, listened to critics, and got better).

I was skeptical of the alphabetical organizational structure – it's an awfully arbitrary way to put together a lighthearted-but-deadly-serious manual for a happier, more satisfying, kinder way of living.

But the structure won me over: after all, our relationship and sex problems are chaotic and blended, too – if sex was just a matter of this thing and that thing rubbing together, there'd be no problems.

The thing that makes sex so difficult isn't the mechanics, it's the entanglements – our imaginations, our expectations, our shames, our fears, our hopes. Logistics. Vocabulary. Secrecy. The endless complexity of other people and all their inscrutable, inexpressable stuff.

It all happens at once, and none of it can be cleanly distentangled from the rest of it. The commonplaces of sex and relationship advice are, on their face, nonsense.

Our cultural consensus is a contrafactual upside-down world in which love is primarily monogamous and lifelong, men don't look at porn, women don't like sex, everyone has one true love, and a good sexual partner just knows what you want without ever having to discuss it.

Savage invites us to treat that consensus with the contempt it deserves, and to join him – and his readers, whose words and voices are always present in his work – in the far more delightful, weirder, more fun, and nicer reality.

Most of us are woefully ill-equipped for reality, misinformed by the ways religion, sex-phobia, and fairy tales "put a zap on our heads" (another Savage-ism). Savage is quartermaster for our journey to the world as it really is – and guide to the better world it could be.

The main image for the ICIJ's Pandora Papers site, a tsunami of papers fluttering around a corporate boardroom.

The Pandora Papers (permalink)

By now, you've likely heard about the Pandora Papers – the landmark reporting on financial secrecy havens, corruption, and the hidden wealth brought to you by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its 140 media partners worldwide.

This isn't the ICIJ's first rodeo: they're the same consortium that brought us the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, leaks from the world's tax havens and the elite law and accounting firms that enable the wealthy and powerful to live by different rules from the rest of us.

Each of these leaks have been almost unimaginably large: millions of documents, the otherwise invisible paper-trail left by likewise unimaginably vast fortunes amassed by the 0.1%. The scale and scope of these secrets makes them too big for any one news org to report out.

Hence the ICIJ, a consortium of hundreds of news organizations around the world, who bring both the raw human labor-hours and the specific, regional knowledge of the oligarchs implicated in the leaks to the reporting.

The ICIJ's earlier landmark publications dealt with gargantuan leaks – but Pandora Papers are galactic, 29,000 accounts leaked from 14 offshore firms from all over the world: Panama, Seychelles, Hong Kong, Belize, BVI, Cyprus, Switzerland, Dubai.

The arrangements themselves are characteristic of this kind of elite "financial planning," which is to say they are idiotically complex, with companies in one country owning companies in another, which own companies in a third.

Each of these arrangements represents a risible fiction: a shell company is a business, a business is a person, that person resides in a file-drawer in the desk of a bank official on some distant treasure island.

10-figure assets can be owned by no one, until the instant some great beast liquidates them, whereupon these mysterious riches can be fully and incontrovertibly controlled by them, but only until the paperwork is signed, whereupon the assets disappear into mystery again.

These arrangements, complexified by their own sake by deranged lawyers and accountants, have various names. Finance regulators and their prey call this MEGO ("my eyes glaze over"). Merely reciting the schemes' details plunges the listener into a drugged stupor.

I like Dana Claire's version better, though: "The shield of boringness" – when a straightforwardly corrupt and unsupportable arrangement is armored by layers of pointless complexity.

Some things are hard to understand because they're complicated – others are complicated so they'll be hard to understand.

The ICIJ and its partners have done incredible work in trying to penetrate the shield of boringness.

Here's their Twitter thread, summing up the headline findings:

And the BBC's "simple guide to the Pandora Papers leak" is quite good:

Reading these guides will give you the top-line findings, like the fact that Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic's billionaire president, a self-styled "populist corruption fighter" who is up for re-election, used financial secrecy vehicles to acquire a $22m French chateau.

Or that Cherie and Tony Blair avoided ÂŁ312,000 in tax by buying a multi-million-pound London townhouse for Cherie's law practice through an offshore shell company owned by an ultrawealthy Bahraini pal of Tony Blair's.

There's more – Putin cronies, mafia hitmen, even Shakira (!), all using these offshore secrecy vehicles to buy and sell assets around the world.

I'm not going to rehearse all the scandals here – ICIJ and its partners have done a better job of it than I ever can.

Instead, I want to explore two recurring themes in the reporting.

First, the legality of these arrangements. Over and over again, in all the media organizations' reports on these leaks, they stress that most of these financial MEGO shenanigans are legal.

What they mean is, these ultrawealthy people and their procurers have found a way to operate by a different set of laws from you and me. As with Propublica's IRS Files, these leaks reveal two, separate parallel legal-financial systems.

There's a public system, the one you and I send an appreciable chunk of our annual income to, as part of the cost of living in a civilized world where there is fiscal space for public spending on roads, schools, hospitals, public health, firefighting and other necessities.

Then there's the other system, a system that operates in the shadows, a system you need millions and millions to participate in, a system that lets you pay little tax, no tax, or even negative tax – when states and countries hand working people's money over to the 0.1%.

When these arrangements come to light, its practicioners – plutocrats, elite enablers, captured regulators – always mount the same defense: "This ultra-secret parallel legal system is perfectly legal." They're (usually) not lying.

The legality is the true scandal. These leaks reveal, time and again, is that we live under the conservative ideology so summarized by Frank Wilhoit, with "in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."

The beneficiaries of the secret, parallel elite legal system are its architects. The same City of London law firms and banks that sit at the center of these corrupt hairballs also lobby like hell for the creation and expansion of the secret legal system.

The Pandora Papers implicate finance ministers of Pakistan, the Netherlands, Brazil, Malta and France. Of course this corruption is legal – it's being practiced by the people who write the laws! The King of Jordan's bullshit is legal because he's the fucking King of Jordan.

I'll say it again: the legality of these scams is the true scandal. Ex-UK PM Tony Blair and his wife did something perfectly legal when they ducked hundreds of thousands in tax – they exploited a loophole that Tony Blair could have closed, but didn't.

Blair – who transformed the Labour Party into an organisation that celebrated the "accomplishments" of billionaires – talks a lot about the evils of tax evasion, but Blair was PM for a decade. If he cared about tax evasion, he'd have closed these loopholes.

The other point to make is that "offshore" is a huge misnomer. The relationship of tiny, poor, finance-blighted tax-havens to the ultra-rich is as a kind of pinball flipper. They exist to make momentary contact with vast fortunes and then fire them off across the ocean.

The Aliyevs are brutal oligarchs who control Azerbaijan. They laundered ÂŁ400m through distant tax havens, but the money landed in the United Kingdom, where they have bought up vast tracts of land – flipping some of it to the Queen of England's Crown Estates.

The King of Jordan's money ricochets from island to island, but it comes to rest – shrouded in secrecy – in Malibu, California, London, and Ascot, where he owns mansion upon mansion upon mansion.

The "offshore" money is firmly onshore. Just as Apple's untaxed offshore billions were laundered into assets including US Treasury Bills, these dead-eyed monsters own huge swathes of LA, London, New York, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver…

What's more, the enablers who wax fat by helping the corrupt navigate the secret law system are are largely at arm's length – for example, many of the clients who fled Mossack Fonseca after the Panama Papers now own shell companies administered from the City of London.

The tax havens are increasingly onshore. Cyprus – the laundry of choice for corrupt Russian billions – isn't a Caribbean island far from the jurisdiction of European tax investigators. It's an EU member state, fully signed up to tax and law-enforcement treaties.

The American states are hotbeds of onshore-offshore corruption. Over and over, the Pandora Papers reference South Dakota's role in helping the ultra-rich hide their wealth from the rest of us, enabling them to remain behind the secret legal system's curtain.

South Dakota, in turn, is merely the current winner in the US states' race to the bottom on enabling finance corruption. The granddaddy of corrupt state finance is Delaware, or, as Joe Biden calls it, "The corporate state of Delaware."

In many ways, Delaware is yesterday's news – legislatures in Nevada and Wyoming have passed suites of financial-secrecy-friendly laws that make Delaware look like a model of financial transparency and corporate control – only to be surpassed by the South Dakota state house.

"Offshore" is bullshit. The call is coming from inside the house.

And the business about how this is all legal? It's also bullshit. Yes, there are plenty of people who manage these corrupt arrangements without breaking laws, but that's not the whole story.

Over and over, the Pandora Papers show the same procurers, banks, and structures that are used by "law abiding" plutes are also being used by literal murderers like "Lell the Fat One," a mafia hitman, and corrupt officials who embezzle billions from government treasuries.

These systems aren't kept secret because the people who design, operate and use them are planning to share them with us later and don't want to ruin the surprise.

They know that they're shady as fuck, and they know they've created a system whose beneficiaries include murderers and thieves. They know that the secret legal system is only legal because it's secret.

They know it is so manifestly unjust and unfair that it could never withstand public scrutiny. The legal, offshore system of finance crimes is neither legal, nor offshore. It's all around us, and it's crooked as hell.

A rural post office; in its parking lot is a rusting trash-barrel, and protruding from the barrel is a gaudy 'Checks Cashed' neon sign.

USPS pilots postal banking (permalink)

If you're lucky enough to have stable employment and good credit, you're living cheap. Poverty is far more expensive than affluence. Take check-cashing: even the sleaziest bank doesn't charge you to give it money – but what if you don't have a bank account?

For millions of Americans – the poorest, working the hardest jobs, for the longest hours – getting paid is expensive. When a bank won't do business with you, you need alternative arrangements, like visiting one of the check cashing places that are all over poor neighborhoods.

Providing high-priced financial services to poor Americans is a $18.2b/year, Made-in-America industry, built on high fees charged to the people with the least ability to afford them – $15 to cash a $500 check.

It doesn't have to be this way. We could follow the leads of many other countries and open public banks that provide financial utilities to everyday people at reasonable costs, wiping out the whole exploitative industry at the stroke of a pen.

The most ambitious version of this plan is something like the Public Bank of Los Angeles, which would also provide payroll services for city and county workers, as well as issuing loans for public projects and local businesses.

We should pursue that dream. But while we chase it, let's do something right now about predatory financial services – something like a postal bank, where check-cashing is cheap and ATMs are free.

That's not just a plan – it's reality. USPS is trialing it right now, in four locations: the Bronx, DC, Falls Church and Baltimore.

The Postal Bank pilot is limited and kind of convoluted – because its lacks Congressional authorization, the "check cashing" is structured as a "gift card sale" – you hand over your check, the postal clerk hands you a no-fee Visa debit card for its face value less $5.95.

This could be expanded through no-fee ATMs, and the cards could be reloadable, avoiding the $5.95 fee for each check – that is, it could be turned into a postal bank that fulfills the core functions of the postal banks that USPS offered until 1967, to the benefit of millions.

The bank trial owes its existence to APWU, the postal workers' union, which included the bank pilot in its collective bargain, and whose leaders personally sold Postmaster General (and archvillain) Louis DeJoy on it.

As David Dayen writes, a national postal bank would be hugely consequential for millions of Americans – putting more money in the pockets of the people who have the least.

(Image: Tony Webster, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Copyright maximalist demands infringement crackdown to fight bin Laden

#20yrsago Australian composers copyright every possible phone number as a touch-tone tune

#20yrsago Brain-scans can defeat terrorism, InfoSeek founder claims

#15yrsago What happens to password-locked data when you die?

#10yrsago Shadowy organization publishes blacklist of writers who track down con-artists

#10yrsago Inquisitor’s Apprentice: tenement sorcerers versus the robber barons in an alternate Gilded Age New York

#10yrsago Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century

#10yrsago Shell funded warring militias in the Niger Delta

#5yrsago Flying Saucers are Real! Anthology of the lost saucer-craze

#5yrsago Survivors of CIA torture describe homebrew electric chair used at Afghan black site

#5yrsago Meth, Hitler and the Reich: the true, untold story of the Nazis’ dependence on coke, meth and oxy

#5yrsago Ghosts: Raina Telgemeier’s upbeat tale of death, assimilation and cystic fibrosis

#5yrsago Martin Shkreli offers a bailout to ailing 4chan

#5yrsago “Power Poses” are bullshit

#5yrsago The Wells Fargo fraud came to light because of union organizers

#5yrsago California’s 40-year-old ban on property tax raises has made the rich a lot richer–20160929-snap-story.html

#5yrsago Twice, Sacramento cops tried to run down mentally ill man, then they shot him 14 times

#5yrsago The malware that’s pwning the Internet of Things is terrifyingly amateurish

#5yrsago Johnson & Johnson says people with diabetes don’t need to worry about potentially lethal wireless attacks on insulin pumps

#5yrsago Yahoo secretly built a tool to scan all email in realtime for US spies

#1yrago Normal isn't enough

#1yrago Inequality and luck and risk and merit

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 251 words (21956 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 1000 words (8548 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Breaking In
Upcoming appearances:
* Reconciling Social Media & Democracy, Tech Policy Press, Oct 7

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Hope, not optimism," a rule-of-thumb-based theory of change.

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla