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.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Eric Carle, <i>The Very Hungry Caterpillar,</i> hand-painted collage. Sold for a record $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Charles Addams, <i>Couple passing a giant bird house,</i> watercolor cartoon for <i>The New Yorker,</i> 1948. Sold for $16,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Miriam Troop, <i>Rain on Laundry Day,</i> oil on canvas, cover for <i>The Saturday Evening Post,</i> 1940. Sold for $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Rockwell Kent, <i>To All Fascists,</i> ink broadside for The League of American Writers, circa 1937. Sold for $6,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Jo Mielziner, <i>Pet Shop Drop,</i> backdrop design for <i>Pal Joey</i> on Broadway, 1940. Sold for a record $55,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Lee Brown Coye, acrylic cover illustration for the 25th anniversary of <i>Weird Tales,</i> 1944. Sold for $18,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Virgil Finlay, <i>The Outsider & Others,</i> pen & ink dust jacket illustration for H.P. Lovecraft's book, 1939. Sold for $5,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Al Hirschfeld, <i>Paul Robeson as Othello,</i> illustration for <i>The New York Times,</i> 1942. Sold for $68,750
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Illustration Art:</b> Frederic Remington, pen & ink illustration for <i>A Scout with the Buffalo Soldiers</i> in <i>The Century</i> magazine, 1889. Sold for $17,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> EARLY AVIATION PHOTOGRAPHY ARCHIVE. Chronicling 20th century aviation from the earliest Wright Brothers images through commercial and military applications. $50,000 to $70,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> FIRST TELEPHONE CALL TO THE MOON. Partial transcription signed by Apollo 11 astronauts and President Nixon. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> SPUTNIK-1 EMC/EMI LAB MODEL, 1957. Full scale vintage test model of the Sputnik-1 satellite, Moscow, [February, 1957]. $400,000 to $600,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> Apollo 11 Beta cloth crew emblem, SIGNED BY THE ENTIRE APOLLO 11 CREW. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 17:</b> GEMINI 1/8 SCALE MODEL. Rarely seen large-scale contractor's model. $3,000 to $5,000
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> SMITH, CHRISTOPHER WEBB. 1793-1871. <i>Indian Ornithology.</i> [Patna, India]: 1828. $50,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DUPRÉ, LOUIS. 1789-1837. <i>Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople, ou Collection de portraits, vues et costumes grecs et ottomans.</i> Paris: Dondey-Dupré, 1825. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ADAMS, JOHN. Autograph Letter Signed ("J Adams"), [to Dr. Perkins?] while recovering from his small pox inoculation, [late-April, 1764]. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUSTEN, JANE. Autograph Letter Signed ("J. Austen"), to her sister Cassandra, 4 pp, "Thursday – after dinner," [September 16, 1813,] Henrietta St. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. 1785-1851. <i>The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.</i> New York & Philadelphia: J.J. Audubon & J.B. Chevalier, 1840-1844. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DODWELL, EDWARD. 1767-1832. <i>Views in Greece.</i> London: Rodwell and Martin, 1821. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> JAMES, JESSE. Autograph Letter Signed ("Jesse W. James"), to Mr. Flood demanding Flood retract spurious accusations, 3 pp, June 5, 1875. $200,000 to $300,000.

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