Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2006 Issue

Profiting From Book Theft

Bars

From prison to wealth?


By Michael Stillman

Crime doesn't pay. Or does it? The book world found itself tossed into the seas of constitutional law when a Kentucky judge ruled that four convicted book thieves could profit from their misdeeds, at least in theory. While on the surface this sounds outrageous, the issues are far deeper and more complicated. This one strikes at the heart of free speech. If there is any one right people in the book world should most want to protect (besides the right not to have their books stolen), it is the right of free speech. This is the issue that played out in a Lexington courtroom a few weeks ago.

In December, four young men, former college students at that, pleaded guilty to stealing some rare books from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington. They received sentences that will require them to serve at least seven years in prison (parts of those sentences are currently under appeal). At the time of sentencing, District Court Judge Jennifer Coffman asked the parties to submit opinions on whether a statute designed to prevent criminals from profiting by selling the stories of their crime should be imposed on the defendants. While there was no indication any of the defendants planned such a book, they won't have much else to do during the next seven years. Might as well write a book.

This issue came to the forefront back in the 1970s when the New York State legislature passed the "Son of Sam" law. David Berkowitz, the son of Sam Berkowitz, had committed a few sensational murders of young lovers around New York's Central Park. The crime was such a sensation that lawmakers feared Berkowitz would make a fortune selling a book about his horrific crimes. I'm not sure what he would have spent it on; cigarettes maybe, but this guy didn't deserve even that. However, New York's "Son of Sam" law was struck down in a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1991. The Court found this law, at least in its particular form, a restraint on the right of free speech. There are many other such laws on the books of other jurisdictions, and to what extent and in what instances they are applicable, is still a major question. Free speech is a complex and controversial subject, and issues which arise on its borderlines, like pornography, flag burning, obscenities on tee shirts, and whistle blowing, are never easy to decide. Did Cindy Sheehan have a right to attend the President's State of the Union address wearing an anti-war message on her shirt? Did Karl Rove or Scooter Libby have the right to release a CIA agent's name? Do these book thieves have the right to sell their story? None of these are easy to answer.

Ultimately, Judge Coffman ruled that the court could not seize the money earned by these thieves should they sell their stories. This does not mean that they cannot be sued for the damages they caused. Librarian B.J. Gooch, who was tied up and zapped with a stun gun during the robbery, is suing and will be entitled to funds from any books, or any other sources these men may have, should she be successful. However, the state may not seize and hold funds in advance on behalf of victims or anyone else.

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