On Friday, April 17, 2009, I called Helium Exchange Inc. to protest against the publisher’s refusal to remove several of my brilliant essays from its website at helium.com, and I wound up interviewing John Rozen, the corporation’s Vice President. My account of that interview shall be released aloft soon after this Introduction to helium.com, and may be of some considerable amusement to anyone seriously interested in the future of paperless publishing.
Helium Exchange Inc is a Delaware corporation registered as a foreign corporation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on March 26, 2006. Its offices may be visited at 200 Brickstone Square, Andover, Massachusetts 01810. A permit may be required to stage protests at that location, but service of process may be had without a permit – Helium’s terms of service specify that disputes with its writers or content suppliers are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal, state and local courts for Boston, Massachusetts. The corporation operates the website Helium.com, where it advertises itself as “the face of the publishing revolution,” “a knowledge cooperative where our writers are also our editors who read and rate every article on the site,” a place where publishers may efficiently “get the content they need” and where writers can “contribute what they know to share with millions of readers” “who want a choice of viewpoints.” At the very top of the ad appears the three-pronged hook: Write - Publish - Get Paid.
I myself joined up and became a Helium Head although I (HE™) had serious reservations about the Helium™ model. First of all, it seems that almost everyone who is halfway literate with some vanity is a writer nowadays; if all those who do fancy themselves as writers are also the raters and the editors at Helium, the process would invariably boil down to a sort of incestuous popularity contest, which would not speak well for the quality or the survival of the product.
Helium writers must present opinions on certain titled topics pre-conceived by the Helium staff; if they do not stay on those topics and in a way that satisfies the biases of select writers-editors, their articles are summarily deleted. A Helium Head may devise his or her own title and try to stay on it, but if the topic and the content there under do not please the writers-editors, it too shall be deleted. However, if an article is acceptable, the writer will discover, usually to his surprise and dismay, that he may not have it deleted by the staff, although he may revise it if the revision is to the staff’s liking. Incidentally, readers who are not Helium Heads do not rate articles nor do they have a say in the editorial process. This process would be analogous to a modified America Idol where listeners would not participate in the process: amateur singers would rate each other; and some amateur singers serving as amateur editors would disqualify performers according to the prejudices of the overarching staff as to what songs might be popular. The singers, of course, could not pick song titles nor choose subjects to sing about. Imagine the result.
The Helium rating game and writing contests would purportedly identify the best “citizen journalists”, but those journalists would be amateur opinionators instead of fact-hardened reporters rounded off by thoughtful analysis into glib columnists. Professional columnists normally rise from the reportorial ranks at newspapers, or, in some notorious cases, they distinguish themselves as professional ideologues on campaign trails and the like before becoming political hack columnists who manipulate facts and distort truth to suit their prejudices; hence it appears that most Helium writers would be beginners who expected to start at the top. And if the quality or the product were anything but mediocre, one wonders why publishers would want to pay for material that people could get at Helium.com for nothing, printing out copies for themselves at will. Surely very little pay would trickle down to the writers – Helium employs the word ‘cooperative’, but the writers do not own the venture.
A number of Internet writers’ sites have offered fame and fortune to writers in the past. Most of them are now defunct. Readers refused to pay for the kind of content offered, being accustomed to getting free information and entertainment on the Internet. Writing-content per se did not create enough action to generate enough revenue to turn a profit, nor was there much money in hustling the writers for writing courses, editing services, book publishing services, agency services and the like. Of course some writers’ site operators are not in it for the money, and have the means to continue indefinitely. Perhaps the best way for a writing platform to succeed is to offer a great platform to serve the writing community, giving writers good cause to subscribe to use it to present themselves as personalities and to strut their stuff whether for income or not.
All in all, the Helium site at first appeared to me to be another ploy to create a buzz for the sake of advertising revenue and hopes of getting a slice of the pie-in-the-sky, but I decided to give the site a whirl in view of the prestige of the officers and directors of the firm and their experience with the new publishing frontier – they are the experts, and might have something rewarding up their corporate sleeve for writers, perhaps contracts with publishers who pay writers upfront instead of leading them on with promises about the hereafter.
Signature Capital, a self-styled “revolutionary” venture capitalist, apparently supplies not only capital but several of Helium’s distinguished directors as well. Signature’s website rhetoric describes its investment criteria as follows: “Signature Capital invests only in early-stage growth companies without any prior significant funding that have a proprietary position in timely new products or services, serving a large, established market permitting rapid scalability of revenue to over $100M per year. The company must have one or more strong, visionary managers and be in a field with good valuations in the securities markets. We select those investments where a combination of the vision and skills of the company management, a highly qualified board of directors built with Signature Capital's help combined with those of our firm's partners and additional capital can create the opportunity for a successful liquidity event in a 3-5 year time period.”
According to Signature Capital’s ‘Who’s Who Boards’, Helium Board of Directors and Board Advisors includes persons with expertise in investment banking; internet-centric marketing strategies; development and support services for mainframe and personal computer services; website strategies and forensics; public relations for search engine marketing; advertising and sales leadership within the Google organization; brand management; intellectual property rights and general counseling in technology law; corporate counseling in international law; grassroots political campaigning and book writing about the so-called democratic Internet revolution; Associated Press staff writing and Harvard Business Review editing; and presiding over the Boston Globe, a New York Times media firm.
I eventually became disenchanted by the overall mediocrity of the Helium organization and politely asked that my articles be removed from the site. Helium President Mark Ranalli refused to remove my articles, although, according to Helium’s calculation, they were worth barely more than $1 after roughly a year’s exposure, an inconsiderate dollar I could not collect because accruals less than $20 are not paid out. I promised Mr. Ranalli that I would have his firm sued. But legal action may not be taken if it appears that Helium™ will probably dissipate before the removal of a one-year curse laid on it.
When I called Helium, I wanted to speak to Helium’s Paula Schmitz about Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and about what, in retrospect, appeared to me to be Helium’s scheme to lure aspiring writers to become “citizen journalists” and to post their intellectual property on its website where Helium could plunder it for little or no pay. Those writers who eventually felt that the writing community was being exploited, and who protested on the bulletin board or posted critical articles on the site, had their protest and criticism deleted. When they demanded that their accounts be deleted and their articles removed from the site, they were referred to the adhesion User Agreement or Terms of Service which they had not bothered to read – studies indicate that even lawyers rarely read TOS on Internet sites – before clicking on the ‘Publish’ button: They trusted the integrity of the Helium officers and thus the experts who had drafted the complicated document for the company, and expected the terms to be in the best interest of the writing “cooperative.” Besides, they were in a hurry to achieve the fame and fortune held out to them by the persuasive marketing strategy explained under “Write - Publish - Get Paid.”
Dissidents were informed, much to their chagrin, that the ‘click-wrap/browse-wrap’ adhesion contract they had unwittingly “agreed” to imperiously legislated that Helium keep and display their property, without exception, on the site or elsewhere indefinitely, against their will, where some of it might be sold in bulk to other publishers. To add insult to injury, in some cases their names or bylines were removed from their work – at the very least, an author is entitled to his vanity. Naturally the dissident “citizen journalists” Irish ire and innate sense of injustice was aroused, particularly if they had enjoyed the customary power-of-deletion at longstanding writing communities such as authorsden.com, postpoems.com, authorsuk.com, and elsewhere.
Now a writer might sell a work he has posted at other writing communities for the purpose of criticism, providing that he could remove it when the possibility of a sale arose.. But if he cannot delete it, it becomes virtually worthless. Indeed, considering the fact that several fine citizen journalists are earning around a dollar a year or even less at Helium, and that they cannot collect any money less than twenty dollars, the terms of service now offered by Helium is tantamount to an unconscionable contract for professional suicide. By “unconscionable” we mean “shocking to the conscience.” Of course we might say that the writers who “x”ed the Writers Agreement box, which refers to the purportedly non-negotiable terms of service in the browse-wrap Users Agreement, and then went ahead and clicked “Publish”, are fools if not blooming idiots – no offense intended to those persons professionally classified as fools or idiots. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the most of them felt tricked in one way or another; at least their innate sense of justice caused them to expect the staff to remove material for good reason, as it is constantly removed for bad reasons, as can be seen by the editorial behavior.
Paula Schmitz was obviously the right person to speak to when I called Helium, for she is not only listed by Signature Capital as Secretary to the Helium’s Board of Directors, but as Helium’s General Counsel with “extensive experience handling a variety of legal issues including patents and other intellectual property rights,” who has “worked in both large firms and as inside general counsel to technology companies.” She is also listed on the Helium.com site as the contact person for formal notices of copyright infringement. Of course if she were part of a copyright infringement conspiracy, or an effort to legitimize with legalese what might be adjudged illegal if tried, it would seem that she might have a conflict of interest. I speculated that that would put her on the leading legal edge of the corporate effort to seize the Internet and exploit genuine citizen journalists, who once fancied that the Internet would empower the People. But I would not thus judge her in advance, as being a member of the fascistic corporatist front, wherefore I wanted to chat with her to assess her character, and see if I could get my work removed if she were a wise lawyer, or, in lieu of removal for lack of consideration, “upfront” consideration for my work.
I had already asked Helium’s Director of Community Development, Barbara Whitlock, who had identified me in an article as her favorite writer at Helium, to remove my work from the site; she informed me that Helium’s terms forbade deletion. I scanned over the brief “Writers Agreement” that referred to the tedious terms of service and then studied the pertinent terms. I was appalled, thinking that no writer in his right mind would agree to such conditions without genuine upfront (advance) payment for his work. I felt tricked and stupid although I found some comfort in studies that show intellectuals can be far more gullible to scams than so-called stupid people, who are unaware of ambiguity and absolutely believe in something or the other in exclusion to all else. Then I did some research via Google and found scores of other writers who had similarly become Helium Heads and whose balloons were let down by the low down strategy.
Therefore I filed a complaint with Helium’s president, Mark Ranalli – he had become an Internet startup executive after getting his MBA at Tuck in Dartmouth in 1992, and gained considerable experience at a marketing strategist working large communication company clients such as AT&T Broadband and AOL. I asserted my belief that Helium’s adhesion contract was invalid, and that Helium’s refusal to remove articles displayed against the will of their creators, articles upon which major companies were posting advertisements, constituted copyright infringement, and might even be a federal computer crime. He tersely insisted that Helium’s adhesion contract was valid, and that there would be absolutely no exception to Helium’s policy of retaining every author’s work even against his or her will. He called the Helium policy of perpetual retention a “normal” practice, although every experience writer on the Internet knows that it is in fact abnormal for a site to disallow removal of postings, especially a site that implies that it is a writers’ cooperative.
The firm’s automatic answering facility referred me to a directory. Ms. Schmitz’s name was not on it, and apparently the system did not have a live operator. So I selected Barbara Whitlock’s name from the directory, as my email exchanges with her had been quite amiable – I had on several occasions remarked on the silliness of the Helium rating game and the incompetence and obvious prejudices of its editors and so-called stewards or channelers. She sounded shocked that I had actually called her on the telephone. I informed her that I was simply following up on my desire to have my work removed from the website, and was planning to contact all the advertisers who were displaying their ads on my work, but I wanted to speak to Ms. Schmitz about the copyright infringement issue before I proceeded, in hopes it could be resolved so I could go about other business. She said Ms. Schmitz was not located at the office. I asked for Ms. Schmitz’ telephone number; she said she would not give out that or any other information, and said I must speak with Helium Vice President John Rozen about such matters – Helium literature discloses that Mr. Rozen was a global network server manager and builder for fifteen years, and is now responsible for Helium’s site infrastructure.. I thanked Ms. Whitlock for our pleasant exchanges in the past. I wondered out loud how she could, as a writer herself, tolerate a policy that seized writers’ work against their will. She said she could not speak to that, so I bade her farewell, thanking her again for her past kindness. Then I called John Rozen as she had suggested.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ROZEN SHALL SOON BE RELEASED ALOFT