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Tom Chaney: Fragments of Deceit

Of Writers And Their Books: Fragments of Deceit. Tom says you might not expect a high degree of excitement from a thriller which turns on copyright and contract law but Errors and Omissions is a keeper . This column first appeared 14 March 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Five Years and Going Around Again

By Tom Chaney

Fragments of Deceit

The obligation one assumes when one accepts a book from a friend is magnified by at least a factor of two when one writes about that book. I know I have at least two readers, for a pair of those rare birds told me so. More than two have said so, but those two are known for their honesty.

Some months ago -- perhaps years ago -- a friend motored through and flung me a book. Says he, "Read this. You'll like it." I believed him on the strength of past honesty and good judgment.

I started to read, and, as is frequently the case, got distracted early in the first chapter.

A week or two ago, I came across Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein again. I was hooked.

You might not expect a high degree of excitement from a thriller which turns on copyright and contract law. But this one is a keeper.

Michael Seeley is a 'take-no-prisoners' attorney in the field of intellectual litigation. As the novel opens he is defending the rights of a sculptor who is more interested in money than in protection of his rights as an artist.

Seeley, on the brink of divorce and at the moment of professional despair, defends his absent client before an unsympathetic judge. Seeley is drunk. The judge threatens disbarment. His firm is loath to defend him.

Scene shifts from New York to Hollywood where he is sent by his firm to defend its client United Pictures in a matter of authorship.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have made it more difficult for film studios to claim ownership rights to screenplays without clear assignment of those rights from the actual creator.

United Pictures and its head, Bermann, produced a film called Spycatcher to great critical and box office success. There were several sequels with the usual diminution of quality with the prospect of others.

Problem is that United does not own the rights to the screenplay which is owned, ostensibly, by a photographer named Bert Cobb. They cannot get financing for the next sequel until ownership is clarified and rights are assigned to the studio.

Seeley attempts to persuade Cobb to assign the rights. He refuses on the grounds that he did not produce the script; hence, his ownership is fraudulent. He cannot sell what he does not own.

Seeley is then thrust into the maelstrom of the anti-communist blacklisting era of the 1950's and from there into the ominous world of Nazi-occupied Poland, as he traces authorship from Cobb to a childhood friend of Bermann's in Poland.

The intricate legal turns; the straightforward, elegant style from the opening line, "The worst part of being drunk before breakfast is the hangover that returns before noon," to "Nothing was left to be said or done, so Seeley walked out of the room into the corridor where the sound of Reiman's leather soles on the polished linoleum still echoed against the empty walls" are accompanied by the exploration of the complex question of who owns art once it is created.

The issues are complex. The tale is well-told -- worthy of at least a Grisham. In 2008 Goldstein published his second novel A Patent Lie. I'm ready for it! Probably more than I need to know about patent law.

Bring it on!

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-03-15 02:27:13
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