The Controversy over A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack

Cover of _A Piece of Blue Sky_

A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack was a book that was almost very nearly strangled in the cradle. It hadn't even been published when the very expensive, very litigious attorneys for the Church of Scientology went to work trying to get it suppressed in the USA. While a district court judge ruled that the book violated all sorts of Scientology copyrights, an appellate court applied the four-prong "Fair Use" test to the book and found that the book met those tests. The book was published in the United States in October, 1990.

District Court Opinion

Appellate Court Opinion

In 1995, a British court found that Jon Atack had libeled the headmistress of the Greenfields School in East Grinstead and issued an injunction against Atack forbidding him "and his servants" from publishing the offending paragraph on page 336 of the book. The injunction reprints the entire paragraph in full.

It is my understanding that while Jon Atack or his agents cannot distribute the book with the offending paragraph intact, the book can be sold to citizens of the UK, and, indeed, UK citizens have purchased A Piece of Blue Sky from US bookstores for years without problems. The book is NOT banned in the UK.

For more information about the legal status of the book in the UK, read Chris Owen's Blue Sky Legal FAQ.

Earlier this year, netizens like Tilman Hausherr noticed that A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack was missing from the internet bookseller amazon.com, which bills itself as "Earth's Biggest Selection." After politely writing back and forth with amazon, and getting nowhere, Tilman and Chris Leithiser aired their concerns on the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology and on various email lists.

During the weekend of May 15-16, 1999, and at the beginning of the next week, the controversy seemed to gain critical mass. Various netizens began emailing reporters and connections with the news that amazon.com, which was already under a lot of scrutiny for being a high-flying Internet IPO that had yet to turn a profit, was banning books for no good reason. Certainly the emails that amazon.com customer service flaks were churning out were less than helpful. Words like "legal issues" and, later, "libel issues" were being thrown around by amazon.com representatives who responded to netizen concerns via email. It was very apparent from the different messages being sent out that amazon.com really didn't know what to say when contacted by netizens.

Response #1 sent to Chris Leithiser on May 18, 1999 ("However, there are times when we must remove titles from our catalog for legal reasons.")

Response #2 sent out on May 18, 1999 ("Unfortunately, I am not aware how Barnes & Noble plans on dealing with the issue at hand")

Response #3 sent out on May 18, 1999 ("Our decision to drop this title from our listings was a result of legal issues.")

On the morning of May 20, 1999, Wired News featured a story on the controversy, called Amazon Drops Controversial Book. At that point, the ball started rolling, and rolling quickly.

Late on May 20, amazon.com reversed itself on A Piece of Blue Sky. It's unclear as to whether or not the reversal came as a result of amazon.com's stockholders meeting, which was held that day, or if there were other factors involved. ZDNet broke the story, followed by CNET. Deja.com, formerly known as Dejanews, featured the brouhaha on alt.religion.scientology as a main discussion on the evening of the 20th, and as this page was going up on the 21st, it was still a hot topic.

Finally, on the evening of the 21st, the story hit the Associated Press wire, and was reprinted on the New York Times technology page. Unfortunately, the article as written is inaccurate in that it states that Wired brought it to everyone's attention, when in point of fact netizens brough it to Wired's attention. Moreover, it repeats the untruth that the book cannot be sold in the UK, which is simply not the case. However, the publication of this in the US Newspaper of Record gives netizens the opportunity to send well-reasoned letters to the editor of the Times.

Finally, this page would not be complete without the Scientology connection. Chris Owen points out in a Usenet post from May 21, 1999, that Scientology was very much concerned with the UK lawsuit against Jon Atack. Additionally, it should be noted that the Scientology Parishioners Committee-owned site has a page that is very clear in calling Jon Atack a bigot. Oddly enough, this page also has links to copies of letters sent to libraries and bookstores asking them to destroy A Piece of Blue Sky. Given that the libel action was brought by an individual Scientologist, and not by Scientology itself, and that the good people at parishioners.org have been trying to maintain that they are not controlled by official Scientology, it is no doubt startling to read these letters sent out by Scientology's solicitors seeking to have the book destroyed. Why would official Scientology care about the libel of an individual Scientologist--unless this libel judgment was to be used as a wedge to force the destruction of the book in the UK.

While the book is scheduled to return to amazon.com shortly, the battle goes on to have the book available for purchase by UK citizens. If you feel strongly about this, please send an email to info@amazon.com asking them to spend a bit of money checking this out.

Questions, thoughts, comments, ideas, gripes, complaints...mirele@sonic.net

Originally written in May, 1999. Page last changed on December 3, 2003.

Page copyright 1999 by Deana Holmes. All rights reserved.