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It’s kind of funny, in all senses of the word, how we live in an ethics-driven society with no ethics. I mean, we talk a good game about ethics, but when it comes down to it they’re all situational, aren’t they? For most of us, ethics are for other people, and we expect them to treat us “ethically,” but what’s commonly meant by “ethics” is “whatever makes life easier for me, even if it makes it more difficult for you.” We live in a culture where invading other people’s privacy is perfectly all right if there’s entertainment value in it, where our economy is no longer based on generating value but on risking other people’s money and skimming as much off the top as you can along the way, where the government (doesn’t much seem to matter who’s in charge) routinely lies because “the public” might not go along with their plans if they just told the truth, where elected officials gleefully convince themselves that “the public interest” is the same as the interests of those parties who’ve put the most money in their pockets. Where books and movies and TV shows and comics routinely concoct scenarios where cops “bend the rules” in order to put the bad guys away and are justified in doing it, and where real life cops often feel justified in doing the same.

Ethics are always about “the other guy.” How horrible the way he behaves, how necessary the way we behave. How horrible they kill innocent civilians over here, how necessary we kill innocent civilians over there. I’m not saying this from moral outrage, I’m just saying. I’m no ethical paragon myself; I used to think very highly of ethics when I was a kid, as kids who think of themselves as outsiders tend to (I can’t speak for those who don’t think they’re outsiders), but as “ethical” as I considered myself, there was still that “us” and “them” mentality with the attendant kneejerk understanding that “they” deserve whatever they get, but past a certain point you either realize what a moronic stance that is or you wholesale embrace it to the point of psychosis.

Culturally, we tend to approve of the latter and hold the former highly suspect. Take “them” out of the equation, and ethics only apply to “us.” Considering the ethical ramifications of your own actions can be damn annoying. There are people out there who run stop signs and do 50 in 35 mph zones regularly and without a second thought who consider themselves ethical. Men who cheat on their wives who think they’re ethical because they don’t embezzle from their jobs. People who don’t think it’s unethical to cheat on their taxes, because it just goes to the government anyway. People who beat their kids (for their own good) yet consider themselves good because they put in a full day’s work everyday. Etc.

The topic of ethics has been cropping up a lot lately. Over here, you’ve got Larry Craig, a “family values” senator picked up in Minneapolis for soliciting same-sex action in a public toilet. (Not for the first time, apparently.) Hypocritical? Considering how hard he has worked to criminalize same-sex relationships for others, sure. Unethical? Hey, public health issues aside, if someone wants to find an of-age perfect stranger to have sex with, who else’s business should it be? Unless someone’s getting raped or kids are involved, who cares? But it turned out to be a gift to the Republican Party, which got to firm up its ethical standing and play to its increasingly disgruntled religious right base after uncomfortably turning a blind eye to other sex-smeared Republican senators like David Vitter, caught frequenting a call girl ring. Is it more unethical for a male senator to have secret sex with men or with women?

But to the extent either is really “unethical,” it’s on a private level, the matter of cheating on a spouse. (Interestingly, both raked Clinton over the coals for the Monica Lewinsky affair, stating that extramarital sex, not lying under oath, made Clinton unfit to govern.) It’s only really publicly unethical in that secret lives can be used to unduly pressure men who don’t want them revealed to things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Never mind about secret sex rings on Capitol Hill. Are there secret, connected blackmail rings?

Next, the Science Fiction Writers Of America (SFWA), which generated a lot of heat last week by misusing an anti-copyright infringement law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which extends broad powers over the Internet to anyone who claims to be a copyright holder, to force a “text-sharing” site, Scribd, to remove a number of files written by or about science fiction writers. Certainly Scribd, which did list a number of files currently in copyright, is hardly faultless. What SFWA did, though, was essentially carpet-bombing, apparently on the premise that Scribd’s posting of copyrighted material justified any level of response.

Bear in mind that SFWA isn’t a union or a guild or an agency or a royalty collection firm. It’s just a writers group. Not that it hasn’t occasionally orchestrated action against dubious publishers, and it does have a wing that investigates plagiarism, contract violations and similar bad practices on request. It maintains a legal fund for its members. It does a lot of good things. But as far as I know it has no legal standing to pursue autonomous action, and SFWA must be aware of this, because in order to force Scribd to remove offending files, it claimed to represent authors that it didn’t represent, and in addition to demanding all works by those authors be removed demanded works that so much as mentioned those authors be removed. (Obviously the work of someone with a search engine but no common sense or discretion.) In the process, the organization opened itself to legal action by swearing, on pain of perjury, that all files it demanded removed were copyright infringements. They weren’t.

Which has brought the Internet activist organization The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) into it, not to mention alienating a number of SFWA members who wanted their work posted on Scribd but were “represented” by the SFWA.

Which raises the question of which is more unethical: posting works not controlled by those offering them for posting, or lying to the point of breaking the law to get those posts removed? The only real thing in Scribd’s favor, ethically, is their very simple procedure for any infringed author to get the work removed. On the other hand, the SFWA’s solution to the problem is for all of Scribd’s contributors to sign what amounts to an extralegal loyalty oath before being allowed to post.

Of course, SFWA has been perplexed by the ethical status of the Internet before, as a number of “non-virtual” organizations have been. Not long ago, one SFWA board member declared anyone giving away their own original fiction online a “scab,” again essentially promoting the notion of SFWA as a labor organization.

But the logic is fallacious, and typical of the panic the Internet engenders in “traditional” media. Writing usually isn’t like building a car, and fans who love, say, Terry Pratchett’s novels aren’t going to not buy them because Mike Carey published a new Mike Carey short story on Mike Carey’s blog. They’re not even likely to not buy them if Terry Pratchett posted a new Terry Pratchett story on Terry Pratchett’s blog; for Pratchett fans it’d be the equivalent of bonus material on a DVD or the B side of an EP. Nor are prose publishers, last I heard, haunting the Internet for new material and demanding they be allowed to publish it on paper for substantially less than the pittance they’d usually offer a new writer for the same material anyway. That just isn’t the way it works. Beyond that, while every prose writer is effectively in competition with every other prose writer for audience dollars – as well as being in competition with the latest blockbuster movie, a sporting event, ESQUIRE magazine, the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, and Freschetta frozen pizza – but you don’t buy a Cormac McCarthy book if you’re looking for a Stephen Hunter story. Buy a Ford or a Dodge, you’re getting essentially the same thing. Stephen King or Gore Vidal isn’t anywhere near the same thing at all.

That’s what, ultimately, writers are selling: their individuality. That’s what gets them fan bases, and why some people are Isaac Asimov fans and others are Raymond Chandler fans.

And there are all kinds of reasons why writers might want to give away work on the web. Beginning prose writers put themselves on display, to draw attention and develop a base. Established writers give a “present” to their bases, or experiment with new distribution channels, or make their money sideways via on-site advertising. Writers established in one genre might publish breakaway material in a new genre or style that disinterests their usual publisher, or to open up a new market a publisher has no faith in. Plenty of possibilities.

In terms of science fiction, despite all the good promotion the SFWA has done over the years with the prestigious Nebula awards and other things, despite the success of properties like STAR WARS and THE MATRIX, SF is a genre that still gets little respect from “real publishers,” and for the most part authors now prefer to have their books marketed as “mainstream” unless they already have a devoted following in the SF market. If the SFWA is concerned that advances to science fiction authors haven’t increased much over the years – and the last I heard they were generally pathetic, even by current book publishing standards – it’s very unlikely “giveaways” (of original material, not already copyrighted material) on the Web have anything to do with it.

Does the SFWA suggest a system like the Recording Industry Association of America(RIAA)’s SoundExchange, which not only, in theory, collects fees for all music played on the Web but insists that anyone running their own music on their own site pay for use of that music, even if no RIAA member is involved, and then join SoundExchange (for a fee) to get that money back, minus “administrative costs”? Probably not. To get that, the SFWA would have to expensively lobby Congress to give them the same exclusive and compulsory control over Internet prose it gave SoundExchange for music, and the SFWA just doesn’t have access to that kind of money. And it’s not like the RIAA can really claim the ethical high ground, though it clearly wants the public to believe it does; when legal cases go for the RIAA they demand immediate action, but when cases go against them and they’re the party that has to pay up, they just ignore the verdict. But to be called “ethical,” ethics have to go both ways.

But that’s another ethical clash: the ethics of money vs. the ethics of free speech. How ethical is it to quietly buy off Congress to get what you want, especially when you’re claiming to be defending the sanctity of free market capitalism? How ethical is it to force people who have never recorded their own music by traditional means into dealing with a structure founded by the traditional recording industry? Or is it unethical to bypass that industry if given a chance, and bypassing traditional structures undermine them? Is there anything really unethical about indirectly undermining a system you don’t need, and which no longer really serves the purpose it was intended for?

Which brings us to comics.

I’m not sure anyone really uses the term “ethics” in the comics industry, unless they feel they’re the injured party. The word “unprofessional” is bandied about a lot, which amounts to the same thing. The upper echelons of the American comics business, Marvel and DC, are fairly ethical operations. They don’t steal work or print it without paying for it. They profit share, when there’s profit. Sometimes the “ethics” get a little weird; creators of new characters do get paid when their character is used, but companies will then refuse to use the characters so they won’t have figure the payment into a book’s budget, which defeats the purpose of creating new characters. (This doesn’t happen all the time, but there was a point where it was standard policy at one company.) Now there’s an ethical question: is it ethical to promise creators payment for all uses of their characters then refuse to use the characters simply to avoid the payments? Characters who aren’t used don’t gain followings and don’t produce any revenue streams.

Get very far below the Big 2, and you descend into a quagmire of ethical ambiguity: publishers who don’t pay on time, or change the terms of payment after the work has come in, or downgrade the amount to fit the sales results, or keep telling talent that the check is being cut so they should keep working on what they’re working on when the publisher knows the company is on its last legs and they’ll never get paid. Or publishers who feel talent ought to bear the financial burden of a comic when they’re given no say in how that comic is promoted or marketed and no control over any elements that might affect sales or their ability to recoup that burden. Or editors who tell talent one thing to get a desired result when something else entirely is going on, and the talent would make other plans if they knew the truth. Or publishers who want total control over the project and all rights, and tacit ownership of it, when they are paying the talent no money at all and presenting them with a “deal” that ensures the bulk of any profits that may materialize go into the publisher’s pocket first.

And that’s only on the publisher/editor side of things. The list of lapses on the talent side could run pretty long too.

Thing is, they all have their reasons. For all of it. Often perfectly good reasons. But do good reasons make unethical behavior ethical? The fact is, walk up to anyone and ask them if they behave unethically, and they’ll tell you no. Everyone believes their behavior is ethical, and unethical only covers behavior done to them. It’s a matter of empathy, really: we dismiss, in ourselves and in others, behavior we feel is justified. Behavior whose justifications we don’t accept we classify as unethical or immoral, even though everyone in our society knows how they’re supposed to behave. Often the arguments come down to little more than a popularity contest.

I don’t have any solution to “ethics” or even any real conclusion, except that maybe we put too much emphasis on them, and it’s all the wrong emphasis. You look through history and people have always justified their own unethical behavior as right and proper under the circumstances, and that’s unlikely to change, but more and more in our culture today perceived ethical affronts are being used to justify unethical responses. It’s not that we don’t know the difference between right and wrong anymore. It’s that those concepts shift with our situations. If we’re really that concerned with ethics – and more and more they look like little more than a sideshow – maybe it’s time we flat out admit they’re situational and go from there. Not that I’m not enjoying the joke.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Nothing much to talk about this week. The administration keeps getting its lies slapped in its face; today, former administration lackey and commandant of Iraq Paul Bremer produced two letters that proved the Ghost’s claim the White House had nothing to do with the ultimately disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army after our invasion was complete crap, which, the way things have been going, just means tomorrow’s newspapers will be littered with frantic op-eds declaring Bremer’s just trying to dodge responsibility for the mess Iraq is now. Meanwhile various reports keep coming out on the state of Iraq, now focusing on the vast corruption in al-Maliki’s government and how it has drastically undermined an already awful situation and all but destroyed what little faith in the government the Iraqi people had left, even as the Ghost has declared we will stick by al-Maliki no matter what. (Even though his ties to terrorists have now been established as well, but if that didn’t bother us in Pakistan or Kazakistan, why should it bother us here?) But the Ghost got a photo op out of a quick Iraq stop, and Iraqi oil (which we’re not supposed to be partaking of, so why are they saying now that if we pull out of Iraq gas prices will jump to $9 per?) keeps disappearing by the billions of gallons even though it’s under the watchful eyes of “civilian contractors,” so the war’s not a total waste after all…

And now we’re in the TV no man’s land, as the almost terrifyingly dull fall season gears up. When the most exciting thing on the horizon is Jason Alexander guest-starring on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ show, I sense a lot of DVDs and HBO in my future… but no doubt the further decline of network TV’s fortunes will be blamed on Internet piracy…

(Speaking of Internet piracy, how can the Motion Picture Association of America claim piracy threatens the very existence of the film industry when movies have just posted their most profitable year ever…?)

Congratulations to Cris King, the first of many to recognize last week’s theme as “bottles.” Follow Cris to Avengers Forever and you’ll make him a happy man, not to mention tens of thousands of other Avengers fans. By the way, Nicolas Judza, who won last week, would like to point you to Greg Sanders’ Blog. I don’t know who Greg Sanders is, but he has the same name as the original Vigilante, and that’s good enough in my book.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. (Not that it’s been an issue so far.) Most weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, because I’m behind you all the way. Good luck.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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