NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #100
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 19, 1999:

AMAZON V. AMAZON:
SEX, LIES AND DEPOSITIONS

LETTERS

AMAZON V. AMAZON: SEX, LIES AND DEPOSITIONS

So here's the scene: One of the five owners of Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis - the oldest feminist bookstore in the country - is being deposed by lawyers representing Amazon.com, the online bookseller based in Seattle - when a very strange thing happens.

Q (AMAZON.COM LAWYER): Have you had any particular interest in feminism?
A (AMAZON BOOKSTORE CO-OWNER): Yes.
Q: Dating back to when?
MR. SAMUEL (Amazon Bookstore lawyer): Objection, Vague.
A. I don't know. I don't remember.
Q. Seventies, college, before?
A. Possibly.
Q. Have you had any interest in promoting lesbian ideals in the community?
MR. SAMUEL: Object to the question as vague. Also it's completely irrelevant.
A. I don't know exactly. Can you be a little clearer?
Q. I'll ask you this, are you gay? [To Mr. Samuel] And let me say this, Matt, you know the objections. I understand you have a job to do, and I'm going to ignore you for the rest of the deposition . . .

Good heavens. As you may remember (see #80), Amazon Bookstore (founded in 1970) is suing Amazon.com (founded in 1995) for trademark infringement. The Minneapolis bookstore contends that it has lost money for years because of confusion created by customers and vendors who mistake Amazon Bookstore for Amazon.com. Attempts by Amazon Bookstore to find a peaceful solution through talks with Amazon.com were rebuffed, they say, and they sued.

So now: What does sexual orientation have to do with trademark infringement? Let's get back to the deposition after a number of objections and discussions have followed.

Q: In 1987, was the purpose of the entity for which you worked to just sell books for profit?
A: We sell books to stay in business for a profit, yeah. I guess I would say that.
Q: You sell books, but has the purpose remained the same since 1987?
A: The purpose is - has been to sell books.
Q: Nothing else?
A: Not in my opinion.
Q. Okay. . . Are any of the employees at the Bookstore gay, and forgive me for asking this question.
MR. SAMUEL: I'm going to object to the question as irrelevant. Calls for speculation.
A: You're asking me to speculate on my coworkers' sexuality, is that the question?
Q: I'm asking if you know.

And here the Amazon.com lawyer inserts what is to him an analogy that will explain all.

Q: I think, for example, if I tell people or introduce them to my wife and tell them this is my wife, I'm married to her, if somebody asks me if I'm married or asks somebody else to whom I've just introduced my wife whether I'm married, that person can say yeah, he's married, to my knowledge to a woman. So I'm asking you if you know if any of the individuals that you work for are gay to your knowledge.
MR. SAMUEL: Counsel, that's an absurd comparison, and you know that. You're not asking - you can ask her if any of the women at the Bookstore are married.
Q: You accused me of stereotypes. What's the difference of being married to a man or woman? Essentially, that's what I'm asking. Do you know if any of the women at the Bookstore, are any of the women at the bookstore married to a woman?
A: It's not legal to be married to a woman.
Q: Do they have partners?

We don't know from this public record if everyone laughed out loud at the Amazon.com's lawyer's confusion over what his wife is doing in a story that's supposed to elicit answers about gay identity.

But let's give some points to the Amazon Bookstore co-owner for helpfully pointing out something he should know as a lawyer - that women can't be married to one another. Why she doesn't bonk him on the head with a law book is a puzzlement.

And what any of this has to do with trademark infringement is a mystery. Could it be that Amazon.com has no defense, and its lawyers know it?

Ah, but the next day the Amazon.com lawyer is fresh and anxious to do the right thing as he begins deposing another co-owner of Amazon Bookstore, to whom he shows a document.

Q: You see in the E-mail it states, all the owners at this time of Amazon Bookstore Cooperative and historically have been all lesbians. Do you see that?
A: No. Where is that?
Q: Is that an accurate statement, to your knowledge? I don't mean to ask a personal question, and I apologize for doing so.
MR. SAMUEL: Yeah. Just hold on for a second. . .
(OBJECTIONS AND OFF-THE-RECORD DISCUSSIONS FOLLOW)
Q: Do you know whether any of the current owners or employees of Amazon Bookstore Cooperative are partners?
MR. SAMUEL: Same objection . . . this question is invasive, and it's clearly irrelevant. (MORE OBJECTIONS)

Finally the Amazon.com lawyer decides to state why he thinks the question is relevant. He stops the proceedings and says the following:

"I think it's important, as I said yesterday, that a jury understands how Amazon Bookstore Cooperative represents itself to the public, and I think as part of that, it's important for the jury to know, for example, whether the people who work in the Bookstore have a particular sexual orientation because obviously from the perspective of my client, we think that's important to the case, the defense's case, and that is one of the grounds for relevance."

You can skip the rest of his explanation, but in deference to what I think he is trying to say I've transcribed it anyway:

"And on the question of whether people are partners, in deposing people, and if we continue to depose employees at the Bookstore, I would certainly like to know if they have a relationship with somebody else at the Bookstore. And it would be more likely than not that they would have access to the same information, similar to a man and a woman who are married."

Well, there he goes again (not listening to yesterday's witness, by the way), though it's clear he's not comfortable with the line of questioning and has one thing further to say:

"And, again, I don't take any pleasure in asking these questions, and from my perspective, I ask them - to me, it's like asking somebody if they have red hair. I don't particularly put a label on somebody because they have a particular sexual orientation. To me if you're married, it doesn't matter if you're married as a man and a woman, woman and woman or man and a man."

So that's very gracious of Amazon.com's lawyer, and we're sure the co-owners of Amazon Bookstore, who had to sit through many days of questions and assumptions that were just as irrelevant as these, felt a lot better when he explained himself.

Meanwhile, it's worth looking at such testimony to appreciate why the court makes these kinds of depositions public: If Amazon.com thinks it's playing some kind of hardball by disclosing the sexual identity and relationships of the staff of Amazon Bookstore, we should know it.

And we should know that all of these questions are being asked not just by some attorney fishing for bait he can use later but "from the perspective of my client," which is to say the people who own and operate Amazon.com.

Can't you see some strategist in a back room somewhere suddenly looking as if the light has dawned. Say, he says to himself, these women are dykes! We can't lose! Our 'defense' is proof they're a bunch of lezbos and we walk away with the trial!

Otherwise, why ask how "the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative represents itself to the public" when it's clear on every identifying statement made by that store that it's a feminist bookstore? Its website is http://www.amazonFEMBKS.com (emphasis mine). Its purpose is the same as every other independent bookstore in the country - to "sell books to stay in business for a profit" as the co-owner testified. Of course it sells a lot of lesbian books - so does Amazon.com!

To Matt Samuel, the Amazon Bookstore lawyer who appears to be getting madder and madder during the depositions, "this line of questioning by Amazon.com borders on the outrageous," as he said on the phone yesterday. To stop it, on October 8 he moved for a protective order "to prevent Defendant Amazon.com from inquiring into the sexual orientation or relationships of any witness in this case."

In this motion, Samuel makes the astute observation that "under Amazon.com's view of the law, Amazon Bookstore could and should have asked Amazon.com's President, Jeff Bezos, if he is gay or straight, and whether he is sleeping with anyone in his company who also might be a witness.

"One would think that both Mr. Bezos and his counsel would have taken offense at this line of questioning, and refused to answer. The principals of Amazon Bookstore are entitled to every bit as much respect and protection from harassment as Mr. Bezos."

So come on, Jeff, one wants to say: Call off the dogs. This suit is a legitimate attempt to determine trademark infringement. It's not about anything else. If you think it is, you're not fighting fair. (And by the way, have you ever had a boyfriend?)

Note: The hearing on this motion is set for October 27. Anyone who'd like to contribute to the Amazon Bookstore Legal Defense Fund can send checks to the store Amazon Bookstore, 1612 Harmon Place, Minneapolis MI 55403.
Should Amazon Bookstore win or settle the suit, all donations will be returned. You can also buy AmazonNOTcom buttons ($2 each plus .75) or t-shirts ($18 plus $4 shipping & handling) that say "I support the original Amazon Bookstore. Since 1970" by contacting amazon@amazonfembks.com .

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

How about putting your readers onto the fact that they should be Emailing/writing/calling Oprah by the thousands about her recommending that her audience purchase books from Amazon.com? Twice this week! I sometimes wondered if she had stock in Borders and/or B&N as she often refers people to them. Did she just buy Amazon stock?

Nan Sorensen

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Could you believe that Oprah urged all her viewers to get their books from Amazon? I almost fainted! When I think of all that independents offer to their communities, I have to ask myself what Amazon has done to make the world a better place. Oprah should be ashamed -- but then, she probably owns stock!

A Reader

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

My coworkers and I were so excited to see your headline about The Last Independent Book Festival - we thought you were writing about us. Though that was not the case, we thought you might like to know that there are other independent and nonprofit book festivals out there.

The Eleventh Annual Southern Festival of Books, which took place Oct. 8-10 in Nashville, TN, is a program of the Tennessee Humanities Council. The festival gets funding from grants, public donations, and sponsorships by local businesses. We have two committees (one for adult literature and one for children's books) made up of members of the community. We do not charge admission. We, like the San Francisco Book Festival, also have very little money for author honorariums and expenses and are very reliant upon the generosity of authors and publishers. While the festival takes place in the south, we are not exclusively Southern. Some of the authors at last week's festival included: Sharon Olds, Scott Turow, Bobbie Ann Mason, John Lewis, Harold Evans. For an author and panel list, visit our website at www.tn-humanities.org.

We just wanted you to know that another quality, independent book festival does exist-- and it's in the South. Keep up the good work.

Galyn Martin
Coordinator, Southern Festival of Books

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

About collective filtering: It never ceases to amaze me the numbers of supposedly smart people who are willing to leap off the cliff at the whim and behest of the gods of technology. To suggest that the state of the art in computer technology has progressed to the point where it can accurately predict human preferences and choices is ludicrous. Computers can deal with data, trends and create mathematical models. They cannot determine whether a relationship between data is valid or a model is accurate. This requires human interaction and judgement. To paraphrase the old adage, an infinite number of computers randomly generating text for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare . .

Barry Johnson
Books at Stonehenge
mailto:booksatstonehenge@prodigy.net

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: "This is because each side of the brain controls functions on the opposite side of the body - the right hemisphere 'deals with logical, rational functions' while the left hemisphere 'is believed to carry out creative and emotional tasks,' he writes."

I'm sure you'll hear about this one! The right hemisphere (sounds like it should be the logical side of the brain--right?) Well, actually the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and as such it is the more wholistic side of the brain that notices patterns, is intuitive, visual, subjective, timeless, musical. These are ideas developed in Henriette Klauser's great book, "Writing on Both Sides of the Brain." The left side of the brain is the hemisphere that is more linear, rational, etc. There seems to be some misunderstanding. What we can only hope is that if all the CIA guys and big corporations try dealing this way, they will get the opposite of what they expect.

BJ Middendorf
bjmiddendorf@hotmail.com

Holt shamefacedly (again) responds: Oh, gad, and to think I wrote it wrong in the midst of clearing it up! Thanks to reader Middendorf and others for catchingor.