Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Friends set up defense fund for author


Author and librarian Jim Van Buskirk. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Historian, writer, and filmmaker Susan Stryker, Ph.D., is leading the effort to raise funds for the legal expenses incurred by local writer and LGBT librarian Jim Van Buskirk, whose feud with creator Hank Donat over a recently published book reportedly has cost him more than $15,000.

Stryker, the former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society whose film Screaming Queens: The Riot At Compton's Cafeteria won a 2006 Emmy Award, sent a joint e-mail with her partner Kim Klausner to community members last week asking for donations to help Van Buskirk pay a small claims court-ordered sum of $7,500 plus subsequent legal costs.

Van Buskirk is the co-author, with Bay Area Reporter contributor Will Shank, of Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover's Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations, released by Chicago Review Press in April. Donat, who has written extensively on San Francisco film sites at his Web site, was consulted by Van Buskirk for Celluloid San Francisco prior to its publication. The published book contains passages of Donat's work that mistakenly were not attributed to him, largely because of edits made by the publisher after submission, according to friends and colleagues of Van Buskirk, who point out that additional references to Donat's work were cited in Van Buskirk's book, and Donat also is listed in the acknowledgements.

Van Buskirk reportedly asked Donat to mediate the dispute and was in conversations with the publisher about possibly issuing an "Errata" notice to run in copies of the book.

But Donat previously told the B.A.R. he rejected those offers, because he did not feel his concerns about his original work were taken seriously, he did not wish to pay for mediation services, and he had no guarantee from the publishers that anything satisfactory would be done at all. It wasn't just the missing attributions that bothered him, he said, but the paragraphs that had been slightly altered and still contained information and jokes that are unique to his work and experience.

"[Van Buskirk] didn't just use my material without proper credit," Donat told the B.A.R. in June, "he stole my voice."

Van Buskirk reportedly was advised by a pro bono legal service that small claims court had no jurisdiction over the matter, and he asked the court to dismiss the suit, but San Francisco small claims court Commissioner Ollie Marie-Victoire, a retired superior court judge, ruled in Donat's favor on May 25, noting, "this judgment is based on a finding of plagiarism, there being no copyright."

Van Buskirk then retained attorney Brooke Oliver, who previously told the B.A.R. that the court did not have jurisdiction over such matters and that she was pursuing further options on Van Buskirk's behalf. The legal costs associated with an appeal, however, reportedly could have far exceeded the original judgment, and thus Van Buskirk soon decided to pay Donat and move on.

Without passing judgment on Donat, Stryker told the B.A.R. this week that she believes the small claims court ruling is unjust, and that Van Buskirk's project included some easy-to-make errors that he offered to rectify before he was sued.

"I've known Jim professionally for more than decade and he is one of the most conscientious generous well-intentioned good guys out there. Jim fully admitted the oversights and errors and tried very hard to rectify the situation," said Stryker, adding that on another level, "I'm really trying to help out a friend. It seems that Jim has been singled out in all of this, and without taking a position on who is right and wrong and who did what, I want to acknowledge that this is a beloved and respected member of the community who could use a show of support."

Stryker added that in the world of writing and publishing, it is common to collaborate and use cut-and-paste methods of editing, and that mistakes can and do happen. Stryker and Van Buskirk co-authored the 1996 book Gay by the Bay.

"There but for the grace of god go any of us who put words on paper for money," she said of the lawsuit. "[Van Buskirk] did something everybody does in that environment. It wasn't a flawless process, unfortunately. But it's not like he was trying to steal [Donat's] words and was making a million dollars. It was a small print book and a limited run that was done as a labor of love. His advance covered the cost of producing it, and that's that."

In June, Oliver said that "the publisher hasn't stepped up to the plate," and friends report that the company still has not taken any responsibility in the matter. Calls to Chicago Review Press were not returned by press time. In their e-mail to community members, Stryker and Klausner – who are asking for donations for Van Buskirk to be sent to Klausner at 1541 Alabama Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 – noted that co-author Shank had voluntarily contributed half of the original court award.

Donat did not return calls from the B.A.R. this week about community efforts to assist Van Buskirk, and it is unknown how much in legal expenses Donat incurred during his lawsuit, though part of his judgment included a $75 fee for associated "costs." In an earlier story, Donat said that he suffered a potential financial loss himself when his extensive research and writing was printed under others' bylines.

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