The Bezzle excerpt (Part II)

Let’s learn about copyright termination!

Cory Doctorow
6 min readFeb 19, 2024

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I’m on tour with my new novel The Bezzle! Catch me next in SALT LAKE CITY (Feb 21, Weller Book Works) and SAN DIEGO (Feb 22, Mysterious Galaxy). After that, it’s LA, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

Today, I’m bringing you part two of this week’s serialized excerpt from The Bezzle, my new Martin Hench high-tech crime revenge thriller:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250865878/thebezzle

Though most of the scams that Hench — a two-fisted forensic accountant specializing in Silicon Valley skullduggery — goes after in The Bezzle have a strong tech component, this excerpt concerns a pre-digital scam: music royalty theft.

This is a subject that I got really deep into when researching and writing 2022’s Chokepoint Capitalism — a manifesto for fixing creative labor markets:

https://chokepointcapitalism.com/

My co-author on that book is Rebecca Giblin, who also happens to be one of the world’s leading experts in “copyright termination” — the legal right of creative workers to claw back any rights they signed over after 35 years:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/09/26/take-it-back/

This was enshrined in the 1976 Copyright Act, and has largely languished in obscurity since then, though recent years have seen creators of all kinds getting their rights back through termination — the authors of The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High Books, Stephen King, and George Clinton, to name a few. The estates of the core team at Marvel Comics, including Stan Lee, just settled a case that might have let them take the rights to all those characters back from Disney:

https://www.thewrap.com/marvel-settles-spiderman-lawsuit-steve-ditko/

Copyright termination is a powerful tonic to the bargaining disparities between creative workers. A creative worker who signs a bad contract at the start of their career can — if they choose — tear that contract up 35 years later and demand a better one.

Turning this into a plot-point in The Bezzle is the kind of thing that I love about this series — the ability to take important, obscure, technical aspects of how the world works and turn them into high-stakes technothriller storylines that bring them to the audience they deserve.

If you signed something away 35 years ago and you want to get it back, try Rights Back, an automated termination of tranfer tool co-developed by Creative Commons and Authors Alliance (whose advisory board I volunteer on):

https://rightsback.org/

All right, onto today’s installment. Here’s part one, published on Saturday:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/17/the-steve-soul-caper/#lead-singer-disease

It was on one of those drives where Stefon learned about copyright termination. It was 2011, and NPR was doing a story on the 1976 Copyright Act, passed the same year that was on the bottom of the document Chuy forged.

Under the ’76 act, artists acquired a “termination right” — ­ that is, the power to cancel any copyright assignment after thirty-­five years, even if they signed a contract promising to sign away their rights forever and a day (or until the copyright ran out, which was nearly the same thing).

Listening to a smart, assured lady law professor from UC Berkeley explaining how this termination thing worked, Stefon got a wild idea. He pulled over and found a stub of a pencil and the back of a parking-­ticket envelope and wrote down the professor’s name when it was repeated at the end of the program. The next day he went to the Inglewood Public Library and got a reference librarian to teach him how to look up a UC Berkeley email address and he sent an email to the professor asking how he could terminate his copyright assignment.

He was pretty sure she wasn’t going to answer him, but she did, in less than a day. He got the email on his son’s smartphone and the boy helped him send a reply asking if he could call her. One thing led to another and two weeks later, he’d filed the paperwork with the U.S. Copyright Office, along with a check for one hundred dollars.

Time passed, and Stefon mostly forgot about his paperwork adventure with the Copyright Office, though every now and again he’d remember, think about that hundred dollars, and shake his head. Then, nearly a year later, there it was, in his mailbox: a letter saying that his copyright assignment had been canceled and his copyrights were his again. There was also a copy of a letter that had been sent to Chuy, explaining the same thing.

Stefon knew a lawyer — ­well, almost a lawyer, an ex–­trumpet player who became a paralegal after one time subbing for Sly Stone’s usual guy, and then never getting another gig that good. He invited Jamal over for dinner and cooked his best pot roast and served it with good whiskey and then Jamal agreed to send a letter to Inglewood Jams, informing them that Chuy no longer controlled his copyrights and they had to deal with him direct from now on.

Stefon hand-­delivered the letter the next day, wearing his good suit for reasons he couldn’t explain. The receptionist took it without a blink. He waited.

“Thank you,” she said, pointedly, glancing at the door.

“I can wait,” he said.

“For what?” She reminded him of his boy’s girlfriend, a sophomore a year younger than him. Both women projected a fierce message that they were done with everyone’s shit, especially shit from men, especially old men. He chose his words carefully.

“I don’t know, honestly.” He smiled shyly. He was a good-­looking man, still. That smile had once beamed out of televisions all over America, from the Soul Train stage. “But ma’am, begging your pardon, that letter is about my music, which you all sell here. You sell a lot of it, and I want to talk that over with whoever is in charge of that business.”

She let down her guard by one minute increment. “You’ll want Mr. Gounder,” she said. “He’s not in today. Give me your phone number, I’ll have him call.”

He did, but Mr. Gounder didn’t call. He called back two days later, and the day after that, and the following Monday, and then he went back to the office. The receptionist who reminded him of his son’s girlfriend gave him a shocked look.

“Hello,” he said, and tried out that shy smile. “I wonder if I might see that Mr. Gounder.”

She grew visibly uncomfortable. “Mr. Gounder isn’t in today,” she lied. “I see,” he said. “Will he be in tomorrow?”

“No,” she said.

“The day after?”

“No.” Softer.

“Is that Mr. Gounder of yours ever coming in?”

She sighed. “Mr. Gounder doesn’t want to speak with you, I’m sorry.”

The smile hadn’t worked, so he switched to the look he used to give his bandmates when they wouldn’t cooperate. “Maybe someone can tell me why?”

A door behind her had been open a crack; now it swung wide and a young man came out. He looked Hispanic, with a sharp fade and flashy sneakers, but he didn’t talk like a club kid or a hood rat — ­he sounded like a USC law student.

“Sir, if you have a claim you’d like Mr. Gounder to engage with, please have your attorney contact him directly.”

Stefon looked this kid up and down and up, tried and failed to catch the receptionist’s eye, and said, “Maybe I can talk this over with you. Are you someone in charge around here?”

“I’m Xavier Perez. I’m vice president for catalog development here. I don’t deal with legal claims, though. That’s strictly Mr. Gounder’s job. Please have your attorney put your query in writing and Mr. Gounder will be in touch as soon as is ­feasible.”

“I did have a lawyer write him a letter,” Stefon said. “I gave it to this young woman. Mr. Gounder hasn’t been in touch.”

Perez looked at the receptionist. “Did you receive a letter from this gentleman?”

She nodded, still not meeting Stefon’s eye. “I gave it to Mr. Gounder last week.”

Perez grinned, showing a gold tooth, and then, in his white, white voice, said, “There you have it. I’m sure Mr. Gounder will get back in touch with your counsel soon. Thank you for coming in today, Mr. — ­”

“Stefon Magner.” Stefon waited a moment, then said, for the first time in many years, “I used to perform under Steve Soul, though.”

Perez nodded briskly. He’d known that. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Magner.” Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared back into his office.

ETA: Here’s part three!

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/19/crad-kilodney-was-an-outlier/#copyright-termination

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