Profiting From Book Theft
Her decision was apparently based on the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Simon & Schuster v. New York Crime Victims' Board which struck down the "Son of Sam" law. The court ruled that, since no one was physically harmed, the current law could not be applied. While the librarian was stunned, the court did not feel this rose to the requisite level of physical harm. As a result, these men may tell their stories and be paid for it. Maybe Ms. Gooch or others will win some or all of their earnings in court, maybe she won't. However, if her damages are limited, and this story becomes a bestseller, there is at least a possibility they will profit from their crime.
I don't know about you, but I will have to admit to having mixed emotions on this one. Most people would probably agree that people should not be able to profit from their crimes. Charles Manson could probably write a bestseller. So could Sirhan Sirhan, BTK, and, undoubtedly, Osama. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. How about inspirational writers and speakers, whose words can help troubled people turn their lives around? It is the very fact that they were once down, perhaps living a life of crime, that gives them the authority to speak on the topic and help others. Should they be silenced? How about former thieves or even violent criminals who use their experience to teach others how to protect themselves? Should civil rights workers such as Martin Luther King have been prevented from writing about their "crimes?" What about individuals such as John Dean and other Watergate conspirators whose memoirs provided important historical documentation? Could such a law have prevented even Richard Nixon himself from writing or speaking?
One of the arguments that the prosecution in the Transylvania case made was that these laws don't prevent criminals from talking, only from making a profit from their speech. However, people have to make a living. You can't write or speak if you cannot earn a living. Dedicating the time necessary to write a book or give speeches may be effectively impossible if you cannot be paid for these labors. The reality is that most of us can probably sense when it is acceptable for someone to earn income that is at least partially related to past crime, and when it is thoroughly offensive profiteering on criminal behavior. The problem is trying to put that down in words; to write a law that allows for legitimate use of that experience for profit while preventing its illegitimate use. It's like trying to write a definition of pornography. You may, in Justice Potter Stewart's words, "know it when you see it," but just try to define the boundary between pornography and art in words. It is virtually impossible. The same applies to inappropriate profiting from crime.
This brings us to one other book-related case looming on the horizon. What about the map dealer who is alleged to have cut maps out of books in rare book libraries and sold them for enormous sums of money? Should he, or someone else like him, be convicted, that would make an interesting story, perhaps even a movie. Aristocratic antiquarian map seller steals maps from great university and public libraries and sells them to extremely wealthy, upper class collectors and unsuspecting institutions. A story about the duping of some of our wealthiest and most sophisticated individuals might make a most appealing book and film for the average workaday person. He might achieve the financial rewards he set out for when conducting this nefarious behavior by selling the rights to his story. And that, in turn, might encourage others to follow his example. There are no easy answers.