Author Scott Turow’s Red-Baiting Rant

Red baitingIn a disjointed piece in The New York Times over the weekend, Scott Turow railed against our copyright system, ebooks, academics, and even our libraries (oh, the socialism!).

There are many responses out there, but I wanted to make a few additional points:

  • Advocating for more protective copyright laws, Turow declares that our “Constitution’s framers had it right,” forgetting, it seems, that the Copyright Act of 1790 permitted copyrights for only 14 years, with the option to renew once if the author were still alive. That means Turow’s One L would be in the public domain by now.
  • Turow worries that ebooks, the fair use doctrine, libraries, and Google will create a dystopian world in which “authors are left to write purely for the love of the game,” asking rhetorically, “what sort of society would that be?” Well, it’s the one we live in right now. Only a small fraction of writers will ever make enough to live off of their writing alone. Most of the writers I know hope to make a living at it, but their motivation to write really comes from how much they love their craft. Ideally, more authors would be able to make a living from their art, but Turow’s attacks on ebooks, Google, and Amazon will not bring us closer to that dream.
  • Turow freaks out at academics who “call[] for copyright to be curtailed or even abandoned,” asserting that these individuals are “simply promoting their own careers over the livelihoods of other writers.” What a hypocrite. Turow’s copyright radicalism — which could, for example, make consumers liable for re-selling used books — primarily helps a tiny minority of authors, the ones making a living purely off of their creative works. It hurts the rest of us who want better access to books, need Amazon and Google to inform people about our works, and rely on a broader notion of fair use to develop our own creative products.
  • Turow closes his piece Cold War-style, as though the Russia he visited last October were still the Soviet Union: “Soviet-style repression is not necessary to diminish authors’ output and influence. Just devalue their copyrights.” Next, I expect we’ll see Turow write a piece that starts with: “I have here on this blog a list of 205 — or is it 57 — known Communists working at Amazon and Google …”

I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this rant from some unknown crank, but it’s shocking and disappointing to see it in the pages of The New York Times under the byline of the President of the Authors Guild.


  1. Well said…it sounds like the rage against digital music not so long ago. Instead of wailing, think perhaps it may be more useful for writers to think of what positive things come from digital media. It is not just the readers access to the work, but as well the writers access to the reader has changed.

    I can just hear those poor old scribes back at Kells wriggling in their graves… 😉

    1. Yeah, it sounds exactly like the attacks on digital music. The old guard has a hard time adapting and so they do everything they can to thwart progress. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. It’s funny how he brings up the specter of socialism as a means of advocating for wildly unrealistic copyright protections. Copyright protection emanates wholly from the government: the government grants a total monopoly over a non-existent asset, then imposes severe penalties for misuse, and even deploys government prosecutors to enforce it as a matter of criminal law! It seems he’s just fine and dandy with socialism when it’s being used to protect his particular revenue stream.

    But to me the best part was seeing him quote the very line in the Constitution that defeats his argument: the Framers most certainly did not believe in unbridled copyright protection swallowing up every aspect of our culture to maximize profits for a handful of publishing cartels, they believed in protection for limited times as necessary to promote the arts and the sciences, but no more than that. Ben Franklin would have been dumbfounded to see copyrighted works outliving their creator’s children, as is commonplace these days.

    1. You raise very good points. It seems even socialism’s biggest foes are fine with government assistance when they will benefit from it. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Turow calls this the “slow” death of the American author, but juding by how many people in the past have declared the end, American novels/authors should be on full life support by now.

    1. True! You may want to take a look at the Lamb piece Jae mentioned below. Lamb says that the old paradigm is dying and a new type of author is emerging. Turow refuses to adapt.

  4. I think he did take it a bit extreme, now having read the original article you linked to. He didn’t back up anything with facts or statistics, just his own opinion/interpretation of current trends. Isn’t his argument about resell like saying Ford should get a commission if I decide to sell my used Focus to someone else? While I agree that author’s rights should be protected and we should be paid for our art if people like it, he seems to be frothing at the mouth about it. Has he not written anything remarkable lately and is hoping to make money off of his old stuff since nothing new has come out?

      1. Thanks for the link! I think Lamb is right: the old paradigm is dying and Turow isn’t representative of the new type of author. He probably shouldn’t be president of the Authors Guild considering how out of touch he seems to be. “Frothing at the mouth” is right!

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