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Apr. 20 2010 - 9:46 am | 4,524 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

A virtual thief used iTunes to sell my stolen short story

Several years ago, I wrote a short story called “The Hardyman.” The story was about a man who finds a discarded robot suit and falls in love. The exoskeletal suit was based on the Hardiman, a real robot suit created by General Electric in the late 1960’s.  The suit was intended to exponentially enhance the power of its wearer, but its creators could never get it to work quite right. Instead, the Hardiman shook in a “violent, uncontrolled motion,” threatening to tear the man within it limb-from-limb. In the end, they only ever got one arm working.

Years later, the main character in my story, Jack Xavier Jingle, Jr., restores the Hardiman and brings it to life, thanks to the invention of the microchip.

Every night, Jack submerged himself to the elbows in the Hardyman’s guts. Amidst the labyrinth of hydraulic actuators and servo valves, swivel fittings and multi-pin connectors, input sensor sub-assemblies and potentiometers, his fingers crawled as the black tide-line of oil crept further up the length of his arms. Within the machine’s armature, Jack worked harder than Hephaestus, orchestrating complex feedback loops and fine ganglia into fluidly functioning systems with which the new microchip brain might be able to resuscitate the Hardyman. Reading in bed late into the night, his body stained black and blue with the fluids of engine workings, Jack read books like Build Your Own Robot! and Bill: The Galactic Hero on the Planet of Robot Slaves.

At some 6,545 words, “The Hardyman” was the longest short story I’d ever written. Unfortunately, while I’d had success publishing other stories in print literary journals and online, I was never able to find a publisher for this one. Three years after I finished it, I decided to publish the story on my blog. I posted it under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, which meant anyone could share or “remix” the work, as long as the original story was attributed to me. At least this way, the story would be read. Someone translated it into Spanish. I worked with Matthew McClintock of manybooks.net, who made the story available in every downloadable format possible; since, the story has been downloaded there some 2,729 times. Information wants to be free. Now, “The Hardyman” would be, too.

Three years passed. Recently, I had cause to go in search of “The Hardyman.” Thinking it would be easier to find it online than go digging through my Word documents, I googled something to the effect of: “’susannah breslin’+hardyman.” And that’s when I found that “The Hardyman” had been stolen and was listed on iTunes, where someone was selling it for .99 cents.

This wasn’t the first time my fiction has been plagiarized or stolen. Two years ago, a young woman lifted another short story of mine, “She Is a Girl,” which appeared in Maisonneuve magazine and which I subsequently published on my blog. The woman, whose name is Courtney Greene, had published my story on her blog as if it were her own. Some 47 readers had given “her” story rave reviews in the comments. “You are a beautiful woman and this post is amazing,” one fawned. As it turned out, Ms. Greene had a history of online plagiarism. She had stolen accounts written by others of their experiences competing in Ironman triathalons and republished them on her blog as her own. After a reader alerted me to my work on her site, I contacted Greene. Not long after, I received an email from someone who claimed to be her assistant, stating that Greene was currently in a coma and someone must have hacked her blog. The post was deleted. Her blog went invitation-only. That was the end of that.

Until, of course, I discovered someone named Thu Ngan Bui had nicked “The Hardyman.” This time, not only had they stolen the story, but they were selling it. On iTunes. And not only were they selling my stolen story on iTunes, they were selling it for ninety-nine cents. Was that the going rate for 6,545 words of fiction in 2010? Not even a dollar? At least on Amazon my out-of-print short story collection, You’re a Bad Man, Aren’t You?, sells for the absurdly inflated price of $74.98 to $176.66. A few months ago, there was a used copy of my book on Amazon listed at $999; a few days later, it was gone.

I contacted customer service at iTunes, and within 24 hours Thu Ngan Bui and his(?) iTunes store, stocked with other likely stolen works of literature, was gone. I don’t know how many copies of “The Hardyman” he sold. Not many, I’d bet. Surely, Lady Gaga’s latest single has sold far better than a story about a man, his robot suit, the woman of his dreams, and how he must give up his robot suit if he wants to be with her.

Nowadays, literary magazines are a dying breed, and publishing online is the new, new thing. But if you’re not careful, you might find your literature for sale at the .99 cent store. Meanwhile, it looks like Bui is back in business already. Maybe I should be flattered a virtual thief thought my robot story had at least some value in the great sea of information out there. These days, it’s hard to tell.

Update: In the comments, Ryan Baumann suggests I picked the wrong Creative Commons license, that the one I chose in ‘07 allows for resale of my work, which was not my intention. Frankly, looking at the fine print, I’m not entirely sure, although the definition of “distribute” suggests Baumann is correct. So, perhaps I am the idiot?


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  1. collapse expand

    Well, in a weird way it’s good to know that some people want to steal good writing rather than your bank account. Thanks for the post!

  2. collapse expand

    You licensed the work under a CC-BY license, which allows commercial reuse. If you didn’t want to allow commercial reuse, you should have used a CC-BY-NC license or similar. The Creative Commons website has a form which can help you choose a license: http://creativecommons.org/choose/

    Bui seems hardly in the wrong for using the work within the guidelines of what is allowed by the license it was published under, as you are appropriately attributed right in the iTunes listing.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Baumann is apparently correct – from the CC page on the Attribution 3.0 license: “This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.”

    Their license language on the license itself is less than stunningly clear, but it sure looks like Mr. Bui (or Than? I don’t know if the name order’s already been Westernized, and don’t care) was actually acting within the limits of the license.

  4. collapse expand

    ryanbaumann is correct. Without adding the “NC” “non-commercial” limitation to the license, you authorized users to copy and distribute for commercial purposes as long as they credited you with the work. Bui fulfilled that requirement.

    I’d bet this is Bui’s business model — finding CC licensed works that can be commercially distributed. If he was within the CC license terms for all those works, Apple’s incredibly fast removal of his account raises interesting questions.

  5. collapse expand

    Some time ago, a friend of mine found out that a Mandarin version of one of his novels had been in print in Beijing for years. The Chinese have printed numerous, censored versions of American and British novels, with no royalties for the actual writers.

    Publishing your fiction on your blog, something I’ve done here at T/S, is basically asking for it, I’m afraid. The technology too easily allows for theft. What *shouldn’t* happen and what actually does happen on-line, in terms of copyright, are two different things.

    Does it stop the writer from publishing fiction in blogs or on-line journals? No.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance journalist, blogger, photographer, and creator of TheWarProject.com. I've written for Newsweek, Details, Harper's Bazaar, The Daily Beast, Radar Online, Variety, Salon, Slate, Wired News, The New York Post, The LA Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Vancouver Sun, The San Francisco Examiner Magazine, Playboy.com, and many other publications. I've appeared on CNN, Fox News, "Politically Incorrect," and NPR. Currently, I'm working on a novel. My email is susannahbreslin at earthlink dot net.

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