Friday, August 04, 2006

Stanford Law Professor Pens First IP Legal Thriller

Over his 39-year career as a leading academic in the field of copyright, Stanford Law professor Paul Goldstein's work has been required reading for legions of intellectual property law students and practitioners. But his latest writing is attracting a very different fan base -- including Goldstein's barber of 20 years.
"He called me up and he said, 'This novel is terrific. I'm recommending it to all my customers,'" Goldstein says. "And I said, 'Wow, nobody ever called me up and said that about my treatise.'"
Goldstein's first novel, a legal thriller titled "Errors and Omissions," is also the first in the genre to be set against the backdrop of intellectual property law and practice.
The Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford, Goldstein is also of counsel to Morrison & Foerster. The novel is the first in a two-book contract with Doubleday. Goldstein is currently on a book tour and writing the sequel.
The book's hero, IP litigator Michael Seeley, is a brilliant attorney and devoted champion of artists' rights whose alcoholism has sent both his career and personal life into a sharp downward slide.
Initially asked by a Hollywood studio to write an opinion to verify that it owns the rights to its blockbuster franchise of "Spykiller" films, Seeley is ultimately drawn into an authorship mystery that winds back to Hollywood's communist blacklist in the 1950s and to Nazi-occupied Europe a decade before.
Goldstein says the idea to write a novel "has been percolating for about 50 years."
At age 12, Goldstein started writing a work of fiction set in 17th century Holland. Stymied after three pages, he says he was given some advice by his mother that is often given to writers: "Write what you know."
After publishing a long list of seminal casebooks and law review articles on intellectual property rights, Goldstein wrote his first trade book, "Copyright's Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox," in 1995.
"That gave me the taste for trying to explain an area of law in an engaging way to general readers," he says. "For the first time, I had to write words that would compel the reader to turn the page."
The Publisher's Weekly review of the book discussed a chapter that the reviewer wrote "improbably reads like a legal thriller," Goldstein recalled. "That lit the spark. I thought, maybe I can do this."
The particular spark for "Errors and Omissions" came several years later, when Goldstein worked on the trial team defending MGM and United Artists' rights to the James Bond franchise against Sony Pictures, which was developing a competing Bond franchise with the consent of a writer who worked on the film treatment for "Thunderball."
"It was a billion-dollar, bet-the-company case involving copyright," he says.
The settlement in 1999 was a victory for MGM/UA, and the case led Goldstein to ask what he says is "the question at the threshold of every novel: 'What if?' What if this had been a different type of claim?"
Michael Seeley, the novel's protagonist, is not based on any one attorney Goldstein has known, he says.
"I knew at the outset that, given the way the story was structured, I needed a guy whose career, whose professional life was on the ropes. Because I wanted him to come under pressure to do things that ordinarily, morally, he wouldn't do," Goldstein says.
"I've been practicing law for almost 40 years. So I've met lawyers who are more or less on the ropes," he says. "And I would imagine that there are elements of some of them in Michael Seeley."
Though troubled, Seeley's character is ethical, Goldstein says. "The most important thing in the world to him is practicing law. He's got a real soft spot for the underdog, and he doesn't want to give that up."
Seeley's idealism about artists' rights is inspired by some real-life colleagues, "some here, some abroad," Goldstein says. "You tend to find more of them in Europe -- Germany and France. But there are plenty of lawyers in this country who are absolutely devoted to notions of authors' rights."
As Seeley races against time and enemies, his search for the true author of the original "Spykiller" screenplay takes him to Europe, and the reader witnesses the protections of copyright law stretching across international borders.
"One of the few things that separates U.S. copyright from copyright in Europe is the extent to which we protect moral right -- the author's right to the integrity of his work, or the right to attribution of the work," Goldstein says. "In Europe, it is almost a sacred right."
At a key point in the novel, Seeley seeks help from a German lawyer, Reiman, a character who personifies this tenacity -- and even endures bodily harm to protect the attorney-client privilege.
"Reiman is very popular among lawyers," Goldstein says. "I like him too."
The writing process for "Errors and Omissions," was much different than for his non-fiction work, Goldstein says.
"Unlike 'Copyright's Highway,' which was self-consciously an attempt to introduce general readers to an area of law that I love, in this book, my object was to tell a story, and only secondarily, to explain anything about IP," he says. "As it became necessary to do it to advance the story, I did it."
Through the editing process, Goldstein did something that likely seemed unnatural to a legal scholar: He took the law out of his work. He estimates that between the first and the final draft of the novel, "the amount of law got reduced by around 80 percent."
Slimming the legal content was a particular challenge, he says. "I do have a reputation as an academic. You have some poetic license, but I did want to get it right."
"I didn't want this to be a situation where people said, 'Hmm, let me think this one through.' I just wanted them to turn the pages," Goldstein says. "The law that's there is all authentic and realistic. But I really trimmed it down."
Writing this particular novel also demanded a fair amount of historical research -- something for which Goldstein was well equipped. "Teaching has taught me how to do research fairly efficiently," he says.
He found the subject of Hollywood's blacklist "a joy" to investigate.
"I knew about the blacklist atmospherically. When I was growing up it was something that was talked about in my household. I knew it was not a period in which Hollywood covered itself with glory," he says.
Writing the novel itself took about five years, and required balancing fiction writing with teaching, scholarship and other commitments, Goldstein says. He stole spare moments in airport Red Carpet lounges, on planes -- even, he admits, in faculty meetings.
"It took over a good part of my interior life," he says.
Concerning the plot of the second Seeley novel, Goldstein is under contract not to reveal too much. Part of the action will be centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, he says, specifically in Silicon Valley.
"I am really pleased with the way it's going," Goldstein says. "Michael Seeley is having more problems."
Goldstein does see the work as a potential series. "When I first started writing it, I didn't even know there would be a last page," he says. "But, halfway through the drafts, I shared it with a few people, and they said 'you know, he's really an attractive character.' And that was interesting and important to me. And I thought, you know, I could see him getting into trouble in other books. That would be fun."
Goldstein has retained the movie rights to the story, but there are no plans yet for Michael Seeley on the silver screen.
"That would be an interesting thing to think about, should it come along," Goldstein says.

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