Sunday, November 19, 2017

once more unto the Beagle

I wrote about the legal suit between author Peter S. Beagle and his former manager, Connor Cochran, nearly two years ago when it first appeared, but apart from one follow-up, I haven't had anything to say more recently.

Until now, when a pair of dueling statements from the two, on the question of whether Cochran co-wrote any of Beagle's work, appeared. And it occurred to me that, while they appear to be directly contradictory, I don't think they're necessarily incompatible.

Cochran reacts angrily to what he says is Beagle's statement that Cochran claims that he [Cochran] "wrote his [i.e. Beagle's] stories." (Are you lost yet? Good.) Cochran says that what he's been saying is that he "CO-wrote" (his emphasis) several stories published under Beagle's name.

But while Beagle's previous statement does say of Cochran, "But he did not write my stories, as he is now claiming publicly," the unsigned introduction which appeared with it clarifies that "Cochran is publicly claiming co-authorship." If the dates given by F770 are correct, this all appeared before Cochran's reply, and Cochran would have been better off treating Beagle's actual words as a misstatement rather than a lie.

What Beagle says Cochran was, was his editor. Cochran also says he was the editor of even the material he didn't co-write. Well, there are editors and there are editors. Some are very hands-on. I remember Isaac Asimov's account of his classic story "Nightfall," saying that there was one paragraph written and inserted, without Asimov's prior knowledge, by his editor, John W. Campbell, Jr. Asimov thought this paragraph clashed badly with its context in style and point of view (it contains the only reference to Earth in the story), but he accepted it as part of his story with his name on it.

That's a lot smaller of an intervention than Cochran says he did, but it shows what can be done and how it's credited. It's still Asimov's story even if that paragraph came from another hand. It was also Campbell who suggested the idea for the story and dictated its ending, as Asimov openly acknowledged, so "Nightfall" is part of the web of co-operation and collaboration that's true of almost all serious writing. It's still Asimov's story, though, his work and no one else's, as Beagle says about his own work.

Beagle says he got a lot of help from Cochran as an editor, that he's gotten a lot of help from a lot of editors over the years, but that his work is his work. He's very defensive about this, staking his claim even to his first novel from 1960, a work which is not in dispute in this case. Well, sure. Beagle's work is his, just as Asimov's is his, even if Cochran made major contributions to it. But Beagle's defensiveness is not proof that Cochran is right. In his place I'd feel even more defensive in reaction to an outright lie than to something with a grain of truth in it.

The clue, I think, lies in the paragraph Beagle quotes from the formal legal correspondence by his lawyer, Kathleen Hunt. This says nothing about the actual writing process. It's about copyright claim, the intent of Beagle and Cochran when working together, regardless of who actually did what. Hunt says, "there was no objective manifestation to create a work of joint authorship, [and] that the parties' conduct at the time the works were created suggests a clear intent not to create a work of joint authorship." And, as long as you read that as being about authorship credit and not about contribution to the product, it perfectly meshes with Cochran's statement, "Peter and I both thought that keeping my contribution to certain stories under wraps was the best thing for the Beagle literary 'brand.'" As I'm sure it was, if Cochran's claim is true. Even outright ghostwriting - which is not being claimed here - is kept under wraps; that's why it's called that. (If a book published under a celebrity's name has "As told to ..." on the t.p., it's not technically ghostwritten.)

But by doing that, by subsuming his contributions - whatever they may actually have been - under the mantle of editor, Cochran was consciously and deliberately giving up any claim to be the co-author of the story. He has no claim to moral ownership of the work. This is a matter of copyright law: if it has Beagle's name on it, it's Beagle's work. You can see the point by contrasting it with work for hire. In work for hire, nobody's arguing over who wrote the words, but the writer has given up any claim to own them. Unless there's a charge that the owner didn't abide by the contract, the writer has no further claim over the words.

That leaves the question of, so why is Cochran making this claim now? Why is he spreading around more widely what had previously been, in his words, "never public" and merely "not ... a strict secret"? Cochran made his public statement in reply to Beagle's defense, but Beagle isn't just reacting to a slightly wider rumor; there's Hunt's already-written letter to Cochran's lawyer to consider: it's a defense against a claim made in correspondence by the other lawyer.

Cochran says, as already quoted, why he "was never public about co-writing at the time," but he doesn't say why he's being public now. And what comes to my mind is, in Kathleen Hunt's legal language, "there can be little doubt that the sole purpose of your Correspondence was to fraudulently obtain authorship credit in the 27 Works in order to acquire leverage over my client in pending litigation."

And that's how I see it at the moment.

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