Law in extravagant edition


It’s sixty-eight years since the death of Alexander Belyayev, a pioneer of Russian science fiction, and his books still sell surprisingly well. A lawyer by profession, and a successful one too, he was wary of rapacious merchants - in his stories they are usually the antagonists set against free-spirited geniuses.

In Professor Dowell's Head, for example, Doctor Kern steals, quite literally, the ideas of his teacher Dowell by killing him and then reviving his head, separated from the body, forcing the dead man’s brain to give Kern medical advice. In Amphibian Man, published in 1928, in an ingenious operation performed by his father, a maverick surgeon, a boy receives a life-saving transplant, a set of shark gills. He not only survives but becomes able to live in the sea with the fish as well as with people on earth. The story, however, does not end happily. The young man is hunted by pearl merchants for whom he is just an instrument for extracting ocean treasures. Eventually, he has to abandon the human world.

It is ironic that Belyayev’s books have played a key role in another operation, this time in a court-room, which has it all - greed, guile and a stroke of genius.

AST, a publishing conglomerate that claims to print every fifth book in Russia, made it a particular priority to seal the court’s practice of calculating damages for copyright infringement according to the formula: compensation = 2 x [number of illegal copies] x [price of a book published lawfully]. So if someone prints 10,000 books illegally and sells them for $2, and you sell them for $20, the damage for this infringement would be $400,000, even if you only managed to sell a handful of books - an ideal weapon to kick a culprit out of business.

AST has used it all too often, believes Sergey Kondratov, CEO of publishing house Terra, and not just to fight infringement. ‘They do it to squeeze out companies who infringed copyright but who did it incidentally, not intentionally,’ says Sergey Kondratov. ‘AST has done this to many of our friends; they had to pay huge fines and some even had to close. It has also done the same thing to us.’

Sergey Kondratov: 'We want to penalise AST'

Lately Astrel, a company within the AST group, won two lawsuits against Terra: the illegal publication of Etymological Dictionary by Max Vasmer (Terra had to pay $160,000) and the works of Erich Maria Remarque (another $200,000).

Recently the Moscow court ruled that AST must pay $250 million to Terra as a compensation for the publication of Alexander Belyayev’s works. If the decision withstands the appeal, AST will be bankrupt.

Alexander Belyayev died of hunger in 1942 in the St. Petersburg suburb of Pushkin while it was under Nazi occupation. In 1993, the 50 year term of copyright protection was extended to 70 years. The change, however, did not apply to those authors whose works had already been in the public domain. AST assumed, wrongly, that this was the case with Belyayev’s novels.

In 2001, Terra bought the rights on Belyayev’s works, a meaningless step if they were in public domain. In court, then, the company’s lawyers recalled an obscure rule that if an author continued to write during the war (1941 - 1945) the standard term of copyright was increased by four years. In 1993, therefore, the 50 year term of protection had not yet come to an end, and Belyayev’s works will be protected until 2017. Whoosh! The trap has shut.

Astrel printed 30,000 books the cheapest way, and offered them for sale for $5.6. Terra published 620 sets, each consisting of six volumes bound in leather with gilt edges, which it sold through book club Monplaisir for $3,800 (Monplaisir’s membership fee is $1,800. It sells books such as the facsimile copy of Federico da Montefeltro’s Bible of 1478 or the album Palatine, Imperial and Royal Hunting with Faberge’s illustrations).

The number of books published by Astrel multiplied by Terra’s extravagant price made up a huge amount of damages, unprecedented in the publishing business.

There is, of course, an element of the ridiculous in the court’s decision. And that was the point argues Sergey Kondratov: ‘The law on copyright is not perfect. We want to draw public attention to this, and to penalise AST which uses the loopholes for re-division of the publishing market for its own benefit.’

The book business in Russia, about $3 billion a year, is relatively piracy free. Despite common prejudices the blatant infringements - which are all too commonplace for videos, music or software - are rare. Perhaps, the law does not need an axe but a scalpel.

That, however, does not mean that the law should be changed. What we need are judges who see life in its nuanced complexity.


August 16, 2010
photo: utemov -