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The Ballad of Thieving Bastard

A few years ago, I put extracts of my TIME WAR RPG online as a taster of what was to come. I was very careful to ensure that every page had the requisite copyright notices, because I’m not a cretin. It went down pretty well, to the point that I get fan mail about it. Now, as with all things, there are folks out there who feel that material online is free and can be copied without permission. I do regular sweeps to ensure that these people realise this is not so. Over the last few years, I’ve had to ask about several people to take down their illegal copies of my material. When people ask me nicely, I usually say yes to their using my stuff, as long as they clearly give me full credit at the front of the document for my work, and reproduce the copyright notices in full. Every single one of them has co-operated.

One of these people was a Mister Thieving Bastard (name changed to protect the guilty), who a few years ago had adapted my material into the Star Trek background without crediting me. I asked him to take the material down and not reproduce it anywhere else, and he agreed.

Fast forward to a few years later, when I receive an email message from a reader who loved my work but wondered why I didn’t credit the “original source”. He then tells me that he’d read the “original source”, a series of fan articles in Starfleet Communique, the official newsletter of Starfleet International, the biggest Star Trek fan club in the world. I check out their newsletter archives, and what do I find? The entirety of what I’d put up on line, presented as a series of articles on time travel in the Star Trek universe, credited to “Brigadier General Thieving Bastard”. Let’s be clear here, he hadn’t just lifted the concepts and re-written them. He’d taken the whole thing, as is, replaced any mention of the Time Guard with the word “DELETED”, and claimed it as his own work. From issues 111 to 118, after I’d asked him to take my work off his website, he’d continued to steal from me. The best bit was that he was on their fucking board of directors and had received fan mail telling him how wonderful his time travel stuff is.

Those of you who know me know that I’m generally quite a loud an exuberant chap, except when I am angry. When I discovered this theft, I got very quiet.

Thankfully at the time, I worked for lawyers.

So I wrote a nice, calm letter to the chairman of the board of directors and the editor of the newsletter, explaining the situation to them and telling them exactly what they were going to do to make this right. I included my mobile number. Twenty minutes later I get a very panicked call from the chairman’s assistant, letting me know that they were very sorry and that they were looking into the matter immediately. I was nice. I explained that I understood they’d accepted the articles in good faith, but that I couldn’t allow this challenge to my copyright to go unaddressed. I told them I wanted the articles expunged from all archived copies of the newsletters, and a full apology and retraction to be published in the next possible issue of the newsletter. I suggested that they might want to consider sacking the “gentleman” involved, and that they would with their retraction they would publish a plug for my upcoming game and a link to the Argent Games website. And I told them that my lawyer thought these were all reasonable things to ask. I was extremely calm. The guy on the phone agreed, but I could hear his knees knocking.

One of the best things about working with lawyers, as I was back then, was that they love a fight. In record time a “Cease and Desist” letter was written and in place, and Starfleet were informed of their legal responsibilities under the Principle of Vicarious Liability (which meant that they were just as guilty of Copyright Theft, a Federal crime in the US with a mandatory penalty of five years in jail and a fine of $250K).

I was still ready to kill someone. I guess what it comes down to is what’s important. I hate thieves, and if you steal from me you’d better be able to fucking run. But ultimately, stuff is just stuff. I can let it go, because it’s not important. But when you steal my ideas, you steal the fruit of my mind, my creativity and my imagination. That’s the stuff that matters to me. This…specimen stole the heart of what makes TIME WAR unique, and claimed it as his own. If he’d asked me, I would have said “sure, just give me the appropriate credit.” But he didn’t ask.

I was going to put his head on a pike. But I’d do it smiling.

The next day, I had a call from the “Commander in Chief” of Starfleet (it was so hard to take seriously when they told me the C-in-C was on the line), regarding the whole plagiarism deal. The C-in-C was a genuinely charming lady who was extremely co-operative and decent about the whole thing. One interesting factoid that came up was that they had an internal disciplinary procedure for this sort of thing, but that the guy who did the investigating was “Brigadier General” Thieving Bastard himself. Apparently he was politically well-connected within the organisation, so they were having to ensure that they dot the i’s and cross the t’s with the investigation. Not a problem as far as I was concerned. He’d apparently come within a hair’s breadth of admitting he stole my stuff, but then started making noises about “working on time travel stuff since the 1980’s”.

Well, unless you can explain how one of the individuals in the documents you stole was named after my (now ex) wife, that excuse wasn’t going to fly.

Another interesting piece of news was that Thieving Bastard lived in Watertown, in Boston. Where I lived.

I immediately got a number of slightly panicky emails from friends worried I might go out and do something awful to Thieving Bastard, since he conveniently lived so close. Despite several involved fantasies about nailing him to a tree, setting fire to him, slicing bits off him and other minor admonishments, I decided to remain the perfectly law-abiding citizen I have always been (stop laughing in the back there) and settle for revealing him as a liar and a thief in front of all his friends. He’d spent a long time enjoying being a big fish in a little pond, but by the time I was done no-one would want anything to do with him. And I was going to be nice about it.

I spent that night going over the stuff that Thieving Bastard put online and highlighting all the stuff he stole. It would have been easier to highlight the stuff he didn’t steal. Some fun things surfaced, like the fact that I had included my date and time of birth as a temporal location in one of the examples (explain that, Mr. “I’ve been working on this stuff since the 1980’s”).

I was still considering suing his arse, even if Starfleet (snigger) disciplined him, since it wasn’t likely to me anything. My bosses were so annoyed about the theft that they offered to represent me for free. In my mind, it really depended on whether he actually gave up and admitted he was a plagiarist, and on how well he grovelled.

A few days after this, I did a quick check of my hard drive and discovered that Thieving Bastard had written to me a few years before, expressing his admiration for my work and asking if I could send him more background stuff on TIME WAR. I told him that I couldn’t do that, and informed him of my plans to publish the game professionally. So a year before he started ripping me off, he knew I fully intended to publish.

While I’m digesting this bit of info, I get an automated message from the TIME WAR Yahoo group telling me that a member – let’s call him “TheevingBurstard” – had unsubbed from the list. I flipped through the moderator activity archive and found he’d been on my mailing list for years. More proof that he knew about my work, helpfully delivered into my hands by his own ineptitude. How do people this stupid manage to function without walking into walls and forgetting to breath?

Shortly after I forwarded all of this evidence to Starfleet, I got a message from them telling me he had caved and admitted everything. They had told him they believed that he’d written the stuff, and asked him where he’d gotten his ideas. He blabbed on for a bit, then they had asked him where he’d gotten the name of one of the characters. He blabbed on a bit more, at which point they told him she was based on my wife, at which point he folded. I was informed that he’d already written his apology and submitted it, and was stepping down from the Board.

So, about two weeks later I got the text of Thieving Bastard’s “apology”. It wasn’t worth it. He’d written a great winding piece in which he talked about how much he loved SF and time travel, and how he’d done all this reading on the topic. When he got to the bit where he should have admitting he ripped off my work, he called it a “careless and stupid” mistake, and made out that the things he stole from me were common concepts that have been floating around in SF for years. Now, he was partly correct, in that TIME WAR takes some old SF tropes and puts an original spin on them. But nowhere did the maggot explain how he managed to rip off my stuff WORD FOR WORD, or why he then lied about it when challenged.

At one point he even said this; “I also apologize specifically to Chris Halliday for using materials he believes are uniquely his own. While the idea of a ‘Time Cop’ organization is nearly universal in the sci-fi community, there is the occasional phrasing of material that is not universal and is, in fact, original.” (my italics)

Believes? I know I wrote that stuff, no “believes” about it. He goes on to apologize for “omission of credit”, when I’d specifically told him the material was copyright and he couldn’t use it. And as for “occasional” phrasing of material that is not universal”, I found it hard to believe that this fuckwit had the balls to claim that, when over 90% of his article text was cut and paste from my work.

Some time later, I got another message from Starfleet International. Since Thieving Bastard had “stepped down” from his position on the Board of Starfleet International, his supporters (including a lot of Boston area Trekkies, since the creep lived in Watertown) had been kicking up a stink. It seemed that most of them didn’t believe he was capable of plagiarism, and had started a movement to get him back on the board via the backdoor. One of the board members was vying to get Thieving Bastard on board as his assistant, which left him open to assume a seat on the board again when the board member eventually stepped down. So the current administration wanted me to write up the whole story so that the board can effectively hear from me what this fuckwit did. Apparently, some of them thought that his departure was in some way politically motivated.

Starfleet publically announced why “Brigadier General Thieving Bastard” was no longer on the Board, placed a notice on the electronic archives of their magazine, and asked me to publish an article explaining what had happened in the next issue of their magazine. I did, and it was much nicer than the account you’re reading now.

In the end, I decided not to sue. Starfleet had acted quickly and honourably. If Thieving Bastard had done the same, it would have been over very quickly. But he lied and caused his own downfall, leaving his reputation in tatters.

A week or so later, I was working my weekend job in Boston’s biggest and best Science Fiction and Fantasy bookstore, when a fat guy came in. We geeks don’t tend to look after ourselves much, so this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. he puttered around the store for a while, picked up a book from the second hand section and brought it to the counter. he told me he was a member of the store’s loyalty scheme and gave me his name.

It was Thieving Bastard.

To this day, I’m still not sure how I managed to control my temper. I stood up behind the counter (I’m just under 6’2″, bald, wiry and have what have been referred to as “attack eyebrows”), took the book off him and told him that he was no longer welcome in the store. He puffed up, blustered and asked me who the hell I thought I was. It was really too perfect a set-up to miss, really, so I told him my name.

I’m actually surprised he didn’t faint. He went from a rather unpleasant mottle purple to an equally unpleasant grey in a heartbeat, and his mouth did a fairly passable guppy impression. I leaned forward, and told him that I knew what he looked like now, and that if I ever saw him again, anywhere, I’d hurt him so badly that he’d be an urban legend.

He took off faster than I would have thought possible. I’m pretty sure he was crying.

There was, as there always is with these things, a sequel.

About two months later I was happily ensconced in my local Starbucks with the intent of spending the day writing. I was just getting up to speed when I got a panicky phone call from “Starfleet Guy”. Starfleet Guy was my liaison with Starfleet International, and had been instrumental in helping me deal with Thieving Bastard and the rest of the plagiarism issue. He was practically having a heart attack on the phone, which I personally considered to be NOT A GOOD SIGN.

He asked me if I’ve checked my email. I had not. He then went on to say the dreaded words “I want you to hear this from me first.” I hate it when people say that. It’s almost never followed with the words “you’re the greatest lover I’ve ever had,” “congratulations, you’re the Pope!” or “hey I’ve just tripped over a briefcase full of money. Is it yours?”

It turned out that a group of roleplayers within Starfleet were now all in a tizzy because they’d read the very short description of TIME WAR in the article I submitted to Starfleet Communique and had sent me an email asking if I’d ripped them off.

Read that bit again. I’ll still be here.

It seems that this group, who called themselves the “Guardians of the Space Frontier” (pause for derisive laughter), had a non-Star Trek related game that they’d been working on for a few years, saw some similarities between TIME WAR and their game, and wanted to talk to me about it. This group, not coincidentally, was run by a close friend of Thieving Bastard. Those of you who know me even slightly will probably imagine how I took that piece of news.

I headed home, and read the email for myself. It was pretty vague, and only detailed one similarity, the idea of temporal agents being recruited at the point of their deaths to avoid disruption to the timeline. By this point I was so angry that I was sucking the moisture out of the air and freezing it. The email helpfully included the guy’s phone number, so I called him.

To say that I was charming on the phone might be an understatement. I’ve run into problems in the past with people who’ve failed to understand that the point where I’m at my most disarming is right before I reach down your throat, yank out your spinal column and show it to you. The gentleman on the other end seemed to sense that, and was pretty cooperative. He explained all about his group and the years they’d been doing this game and all the places they’d distributed information about it.

I love google. While he was telling me all this, I found one link, which led to a site that didn’t load right and hadn’t been touched for years.

I then ask him to talk specifics with me, detailing the exact similarities that had caused him so much concern. It seems that there were only two, the one mentioned in the email, and the apparent similarity between the name of my “Time Guard” and their “Guardians of the Space Frontier”. I resisted the urge to ask if there were any other syllables I’d used they were concerned about.

Thankfully, I know my stuff. I admitted that I’d nicked the idea from Fritz Leiber, who had introduced the concept in his story “Try and Change the Past” in 1958, and that I was fairly sure he wouldn’t mind. I then gave him a verbal briefing on how many other times the concept had been used since (it’s a lot), and ended with a quick primer on copyright law.

By the end of the conversation, he was apologising for bothering me.

He said a funny thing at the end;

Him: “I have to ask, are you British?”
Me: No, I’m from fucking Lilliput. “Yes.”
Him: “Oh, that’s a relief.”
Me: “Er, why?”
Him: “Well, you’re less likely to be dishonest…”

You know, there’s a reason Hollywood bad guys have British accents. I’m just saying.

Anyway, I had to spend an hour or so drafting a follow-up email to make sure there was a paper trail for the conversation, including his agreement that I’d sucessfully allayed all his fears and concerns.

That pretty much killed the day, but on the other hand I haven’t heard from Thieving Bastard or his chums since.

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2 thoughts on “The Ballad of Thieving Bastard”

  1. I have this image (don’t know why) of you walking up behind the guy in about twelve years’ time and ripping out his spinal column, while quietly saying, “Forgive…but remember the bastard’s name.” 🙂

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