Grinding Noises

On Copyright

Sharon Cichelli has asked, 'Other than volume and degree, how is forwarding someone's copyrighted work by email different from lending around their hardback? And should you as a writer object to either?'

Other than volume and degree, how is a continent different from an island? Everything looks different depending on volume and degree. Half of the legal cases in the world hinge upon judgments about volume and degree.

I would object (a) if someone else was making money off my work without my permission or (b) if someone else was forwarding my work without crediting me as its creator (if only by leaving my name on the novel, my signature on the cartoon, or whatever). That's because (a) if anyone's going to make money off my work it should be me (not that there's much risk of that happening, as we all know), and (b) I want audiences who like my work to know that I did it, partly for the (faint) glory and partly so they know where to look for more stuff by the same person. These days, that means I like to have my URL out there as much as my name.

This applies equally to print or web. If someone rented out a paper book of mine such that I wasn't remunerated in any way, I wouldn't be particularly thrilled; but I wouldn't/don't mind libraries lending them out for free. Similarly, I wouldn't be pleased if my paper book was being circulated sans cover and title page identifying me as the author.

Volume and degree come into it, too. I don't mind the thought of someone forwarding a short article or extract of mine via email without asking me first, as long as it's properly accredited. But I do find the thought of my entire novel being circulated via email without my permission somewhat disturbing; which is odd, because on the face of it that's no different from a library lending out a book. I think it's the high-volume aspect of email that disturbs me—that sense of things getting out of control. But part of me also finds it irrational that I would feel disturbed in that way. After all, I've put it on my website for anyone to come along and read. (Ah, but I still control that site, if not its audience; maybe that's the crucial aspect. Creative control over the form of the artwork.)

Still, maybe I'm overreacting in wanting to maintain that level of control. It's like parents whose kids turn into adults. They gradually stop being their children's 'protector', and have to come to terms with the kids doing their own thing. But that doesn't mean they'll always like it.

Similarly, all creators have to live with the thought that their work will one day be in the hands of others and out of their control. It might actually be healthy for artists to relinquish that control a little earlier than the 75-years-after-death mandated by current copyright laws. Again, it's a matter of degree... how old should a work be before an artist should stop feeling entitled to control it? Ten or twenty years old, or fifty? Should an 80-year-old feel entitled to dictate what is done with a book he wrote at 20? I guess so, because he has more of a personal stake in it than anyone else; but is he still the same person he was at 20? Don't get me started on the boundaries of personal identity, we'll be here all night...

So, yes, copyright is important, if only as a means of keeping artists and writers clothed and housed. But what about all those artists who've given up their copyright in exchange for publication, or a recording contract, or simply for the short-term financial gain? Academics often have to surrender copyright to get journals to publish their articles; and they do. They'll never get rich on the articles themselves, and publication leads to promotion, which seems a fair trade to many.

So is the sense of creative control really so important, or is it just the money? I guess it depends who you're asking—and how much money is involved. Volume and degree, volume and degree.

First published in Invisible City Agora, 3 September 2000.

6 March 2001
©2000-01 Rory Ewins