No, You Won’t Be Suing Anybody

Monday, October 19, 2015
By Phil Elmore

Writers all hate each other. We’re all jealous of one another’s success and we’re all quietly convinced that another man’s paycheck comes at our expense. For most writers, there’s nothing more painful than hearing that someone like John Scalzi just signed a six-figure deal, because Scalzi’s also the sort of person who spends his time on Twitter savaging anyone to right of Mao. We all hate the thought of someone we find perfectly detestable also succeeding in the industry. It’s as if we, as writers, view all the money in the writing world as a finite pile of cash, meaning every dollar pocketed by you is one less dollar for me.

In a world where most of the participants spend more time writing about writing than they do actually producing work, it’s inevitable that writers will come into conflict with each other, flame each other, and then start to threaten each other. I’ve never heard of anyone coming to blows at an awards event, but the flap over the Sad Puppies and the Hugos probably came close to getting some people punched in the face. A lot of people online forget that there are real human beings behind the Facebook and Twitter accounts with which they argue… and if you push a man hard enough, he just might show up in your driveway with a shotgun.

It’s a wise policy to avoid picking fights with strangers on the Internet, and especially with other writers. You can’t afford to let another author live in your head, rent-free. Your readers may enjoy the heat and light of you flaming somebody on your blog, but ultimately, those kinds of antics just make you look petty. Ask yourself this: At some point, you may find yourself in a position to change jobs. You may find a new job and even announce this fact to your readership. What happens when someone you’ve been using to pump up your blog traffic takes the time to PDF your profanity-laced diatribes about him or her… and mails them to your new boss? Everything on your blog is public record. Are you truly comfortable with that idea if your financial situation changes?

The same authors who seem to delight in attacking their fellow authors, independent or otherwise, display a remarkable lack of awareness when it comes to online security. I’ve watched one indie author savagely attack a string of people who have offended him for various petty reasons… and the whole time he’s been using these attacks to fuel his blog and entertain his fans, he’s been posting pictures of his kids and family, not to mention his personal whereabouts and plans for moving and changing jobs, all over his Facebook page (as well as the blog in question). It doesn’t take a lot to lock down your Facebook page to just your friends and family, but even that is hardly Fort Knox if somebody truly takes the time to Facebook-stalk you. Stated another way, if you give someone enough reason to make you their project, they will find you. It’s just not smart to go looking for these conflicts.

Inevitably, those whose job it is (or who think their job is) to express their opinions online will run afoul of someone who wants to sue them. You, as an author, may decide that you want to sue someone yourself. Most people are happily ignorant of the law and how it works. The majority of Americans, at least, believe that at the drop of a hat, anyone in the world can sue you into poverty over almost any affront. The reality is considerably different, whether you’re suing or being sued.

It’s actually really difficult to sue someone for libel, slander, or defamation. It’s easier to go after someone for copyright violations (because that’s a clear case of intellectual property, at least most of the time), but even then, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, nobody’s going to be suing you for the content in your latest masterpiece. The worst that will happen to you when you steal copyrighted content is that somebody gets it taken down, and the most you can do to thieves who take your own property is… to get it taken down. It’s a moral victory, but it’s seldom a financial one.

If you think you’re going to sue someone for what they said on Twitter or Facebook, think again. Courts (in the United States) have ruled pretty consistently that you can say more or less what you want about someone else on social media, up to and including implied threats, based on the notion that participation in these social media networks is voluntary. There is a line you can’t cross, but it’s pretty wide. And yes, if you want to push a losing case through the courts, you could, because anybody can sue for anything… but are you made of money? Lawyers cost a lot. Most of the time, the cost of going after someone over something they said online far outweighs whatever money you might manage to recoup, and that’s if you can prove damages (which you mostly can’t).

I’ve been threatened with lawsuits more times than I can count over the course of my career, particularly as a journalist. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, these threats are completely empty. The first step by every law office is to send a demand letter, a threat that says, “Do this or else,” or maybe, “Stop doing this or else.” Anybody can send a letter for any reason. It doesn’t have the power of law and most of the time you can ignore it. If it makes you feel better to send letters like that, I guess you can waste the money paying a lawyer to do it… but you won’t do anything but help your lawyer make his Corvette payment this month.

I remember the first time I received a letter from a law office. I had been working with a client who didn’t like having his writing criticized. He demanded his money back after I did some editing work. When I refused, he tried to extort me, telling me he would “tell the writing community” that I did poor work. When he threatened to sue, I stopped talking to him. A few weeks later, I got a letter from a law office that essentially said, “Hey, remember that guy? He wants his money. You should pay him his money or, you know. Legal stuff could happen.”

Nothing happened after that. There was no lawsuit, and he sure as hell never got any money from me. That guy online telling you to “lawyer up”┬áis making similarly empty threats. He’s not going to be suing you, he has no case, and his threat is just that — a threat, and the most he can manage.

Now, if that disgruntled client had gone on to trash me online, there is very little chance I could sue him, either. That’s the way the world works. Unless you’re a lawyer yourself and can afford to file lawsuits on your own dime, none of us has the money to pay this I’ll-sue-you, you’ll-sue-me game. The same goes for anybody you find yourself arguing with on social media.

Before becoming snarled in all this mess, choose instead to avoid it. Don’t pick fights with people you don’t know. Don’t give in to the urge to participate in flame wars. Don’t complain that you don’t like what someone is saying to you or about you; just stop engaging with them.

Not only are these feuds and spats unnecessary, but they are also distracting, potentially stressful, and very often harmful to your career. Focus instead on productive work. You’ll be surprised just how much you can accomplish… and how little time you have for online conflict when you’ve instead got work to do.

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