(UPDATE 9/7/07: Honest to god I have a life. The latest.)
The Harlan Ellison -vs- Fantagraphics Lawsuit has been resolved through mediation and the details of said resolution have at last been posted. I’ve commented on this lawsuit before. (And as that link demonstrates, I’ve had my own long-forgotten and kind of hilarious digital encounter with Ellison.) Off site commentary here.
The terms of the resolution are, basically: Fantgraphics + Co have to shut up about Ellison, Ellison has to shut up about Fantagraphics + Co, everyone has to pay their own legal bills, no one admits any wrongdoing, Fantagraphics has to delete the Offending Passages in the book that started this whole go-round, Ellison’s name and interview are dropped from any further reprints of the interview book, and, not insignificantly, Gary Groth is allowed to post for 30 days a 500-word rebuttal to Ellison’s claims on Ellison’s own website.
This may seem like a sort of mutual defeat, or possibly even a defeat for Fantagraphics. Maybe it is. However, I see this as a fairly significant Ellison loss brought upon the man by himself, and one displaying how tricky the Internet can be for those with only a poor-to-middling grasp of the consequences of a medium in which seemingly nothing ever dies. To my mind, the key points of the agreement are this: that Fantagraphics has to delete the Offending Passages and that Groth gets the last word and that Ellison has to publish it.
The deletion of the passages apparently goes against the blessed 1st Amendment & sticks in the craw of every hard cussing American kid raised on his or her own inalienable right to mouth off and sass his or her betters. I’m not going to get into the ethical implications of which side was right. What’s the point? This was decided in mediation. It has no significant consequence outside the immediate case. No real damage done except possibly to Ellison’s reputation as a staunch defender of free speech.
In this specific matter, Ellison may have won a technical victory, but the truth is way murkier. If the point of the lawsuit was to reap damages from the imminent publication of the Offending Passages, well, obviously he lost– he’s paying his own legal bills and collecting squat. If the point was to suppress the passages, then, again, Ellison lost.
Anyone who wants to read those passages can now read them free and possibly forever. When you sue someone you have to say what you’re suing them for, and in a document that is filed with the court. Ellison’s lawsuit specifically quotes and reproduces, verbatim, the Offending Passages. The passages have now become a part of a standing public record. My legal knowledge here is sketchy, but I believe that as this document was filed with the court, pretty much anyone can go ahead and order a copy from now until the end of time. In my ever bizarro working life, I’ve had to order deposition testimony from civil suits, and there never was any trouble getting one’s hands on them, nor on reproducing them.
Plus, the damn things are all over the Internet. They’re quoted in blog reports. They’re quoted in news reports. They’re still on Ellison’s website. So they’re there. And they aren’t going anywhere. It took me two minutes to find the Offending Passages.
The fascinating thing about this agreement is the Groth rebuttal. I have no idea whether or not Fantagraphics + Co thought about the implications of getting the legally sanctioned last word, but I’m gonna assume that someone knew they were winning a huge victory. The extreme specificity of the terms– no more than 500 words, no more than 30 days, must go up 5 days after the lawsuit resolution– demonstrate a hard fought battle, presumably on Ellison’s side, to minimize the impact of this statement.
For lack of a better term, this is Print Mentality. Because in print, stuff dies. News disappears and goes away with the thrown out newspaper. Or people buy up the physical commodity and then there’s no more for anyone. If you didn’t get that information while you could, then you’re out of luck. Maybe they’ll reprint it. Most likely not.
The moment that Groth’s statement goes up, twenty to thirty blogs will repost it in its entirety, thus ensuring that it never goes away. And you can cram a lot into 500 words. Other than length and duration of availablity on Ellison’s site, the terms of the rebuttal agreement are hugely favorable to Groth. Ellison can’t edit it, Ellison has to post it, and Ellison can’t sue or complain about anything that Groth says in it. Considering the earlier provision in the settlement barring ad hominem attacks, Groth probably can’t call Ellison a crapface, but that’s about it. He seems to be able to say anything he wants. Wasn’t that the gol’ darn problem in the first place?
And since Ellison is a Highly Controversial Figure with a Big Mouth who Likes to Fight, who brought this lawsuit that pretty much everyone thought was a bad idea, and Fantagraphics was able to semi-successfully cast it as a First Amendment issue, and the end result is a book being edited & having passages from it deleted… well, I think it’s safe to say that there are going to be many people (myself not included) who will be overjoyed at the spectacle of him having to put Groth’s words on his own website. And quote and copy at will.
So is everyone happy now?
UPDATE, A DAY LATER: Harlan Ellison quasi-responds.
UPDATE: Even more.
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