You leak our secrets? We'll leak your book sales, speech fees – into our coffers: Uncle Sam wins royalties fight against Edward Snowden

Merry Christmas!

Edward Snowden at Think. Image Darren Pauli / The Register

A federal judge has ruled that the US government can collect royalties from the sale of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record and any fees from related public speeches.

The US Justice Department sued Snowden and his publisher Macmillan in September when the book was released. Uncle Sam's lawyers argued that Snowden had violated non-disclosure agreements he signed with the NSA and CIA, and thus is not entitled to profit from breaching his contracts.

Snowden did not seek pre-publication approval of his book from the NSA or CIA, as his contracts required. According to court documents, he has acknowledged that he should have done so but didn't want [PDF] the government to edit his life story because he didn't believe those vetting the copy would act in good faith.

In 2013, Snowden revealed documents about the extent of surveillance operations by the US and its allies, an act that had a profound impact on information security practices and public discourse about privacy. He has characterized the disclosure as an act of whistleblowing, a position the US government rejects [PDF].

Federal authorities indicted him on criminal espionage charges shortly after the leak and revoked his passport while he was in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, Russia. He remained there for more than a month before Russia offered him asylum.

He still resides in Russia, although he has said he would be willing to return to the US to face trial if he were allowed to argue his actions were in the public interest. That defense, however, isn't allowed in espionage cases.

Picture by GongTo / Shutterstock

US government sues ex-IT guy for breaking his NDA (Yes, we mean Edward Snowden)


On Tuesday, Judge Liam O'Grady issued a ruling [PDF] granting the government's motion for partial summary judgment. The order states that the contractual language is clear and the court is therefore barred from considering other evidence. It also says that Snowden gave up the opportunity for judicial review by failing to submit his book to the contractually mandated process.

The government has won similar cases in the past based on other violations of contractual review requirements. In 2016, Matt Bissonnette, who served as a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, gave up $6.8m in book royalties and speaking fees for failing to seek pre-publication approval.

Snowden's book has also faced problems in China, where certain passages have been censored. Last month, Snowden posted a series of screenshots on his Twitter feed to present a complete, unabridged version of his book in simplified Chinese.

In that discussion thread, Snowden made clear he expected to lose the case over his memoir. "...I will make exactly zero dollars from the Chinese edition of the book (because of the US government lawsuit), but that's alright: I didn't write this book for money," he wrote. ®

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