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copyrights and wrongs

Lynne Spender’s essay on Google books and copyright in the latest Meanjin spurred one of the more feisty sessions at the Sydney Writers Festival, with the attendees divided between those who passionately agreed and those who vehemently opposed.. ABC Radio’s Book Show staged a return bout, with Lynne debating author Morris Gleitzman. The whole thing is worth reading but here’s a couple of snippets.

Lynne Spender: Well, I think the principle of copyright and of creators having some sort of protection of their work is just as valid as it ever was, but copyright was a system that was based on print and on fixed physical products of books. We now have literary creativity in a whole lot of areas that aren’t in fixed form anymore, they are digital, and I think that we need to rethink copyright in order to cope with these exciting new digital opportunities for knowledge, information and creativity. [snip]

Morris Gleitzman: I am, I’m hugely optimistic about all these wonderful new opportunities. I think what the internet, as Lynne says, offers us all is fantastic new possibilities to share the products of creative endeavour as well as ideas and information in all sorts of wonderful ways. But because the internet provides such wonderful opportunities for sharing, what I’m sensing in the commentary of some of the people who want to rebuild concepts of copyright is that copyright is underlying lots of these ideas. I think it’s a notion that isn’t related only to print, it’s that we should be able to own and derive income from our labours is a really basic sort of principle that is part of a tradition of social justice in human society that really transcends the whole world of communication. We are of course free as a society to reinvent ourselves and to say that yes, we will share everything. But at the moment I sense possibly an ideologically driven inclination in a lot of this commentary which says that sharing should maybe now be compulsory because it is so possible. This is selectively applied only to the products of creative and intellectual endeavour. I quite like the idea of sharing everything in our lives but let’s do it across the board, not just single out the people who are going to supply content for this new digital age.

[Update: the Meanjin kids have now made Lynne Spender's essay available on the intertubes]

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Easy digital reproducability is an accomplished fact, whatever you think of it. The question so far as the artist/writer/whatever's livelihood is concerned is whether to push for police action, which is doomed to be arbitrarily punitive and ineffective, or to push for some alternative way to support the creator of reproducible works.

    As for who's making a living off whose creativity: everyone's dependent on other people's creative labour. Even artists eat, live in houses, wear clothes, travel in trains, and so on. The issue here is a breakdown in how capitalism manages that interdependence so far as artists etc. are concerned. And anyway, as Jeff pointed out, the vast majority of them have never got that great a deal from their "fundamental right to ownership and control of the work".

    • Carpenters own their work, train drivers own theirs, that's why they get paid for it which is why they can eat and feed their families. Why should writers be any different. The fact that they have had trouble making a decent deal for it in the past is no reason to give it away for nothing. That article ends, "But if we want to move more quickly to prevent literary property…from being locked into private ownership for extended periods of time, we need to change the law." Why should we want to stop private ownership of literary works? And not private ownership of your car or your house?
      -1 on the intense debate meter and getting lower.

      • Re: A loyal commentor commented on copyrights and wrongs Most carpenters today don't own their work. Certainly, train drivers don't. You're working with a model of society based on small commodity production, something that hasn't existed since the middle ages. It's purely ideological — a fantasy of writers as solitary craftsmen working in ye olde village or something. Actually, professional writers are small cogs in a big industry — and that's why the fact that most of them have trouble 'making a decent deal' is not some minor point but is central to the argument.
        As Lynne Spender's essay points out, copyright isn't some eternal law but a relatively recent invention. It's one model as to how these matters might be governed. It's not the only one — and I can't see why it's not possible to come up with a way of mediating such issues that makes use of the possibilities of new technologies rather than trying to shut them down.
        You ask: 'Why should we want to stop private ownership of literary works?'
        In another reply I gave the example of TS Eliot's poetry. I actually had to remove a quote from Eliot from a book I published because his heirs are notoriously tetchy about their copyright. To me, that's kinda obscene, actually. Do you really want great literary works locked up like that?
        You ask: 'and not private ownership of your car or your house?'
        Um…if you're arguing for existing copyright on the basis on an analogy with what private car ownership has done to the roads (or the environment), well, I rest my case. I'm for public transport and I'm for public housing for similar reasons as to why I'm for changing the copyright law. The privatisation of such basic services benefits the wealthy and the privileged. It's the same with information.

        • Well I certainly look forward to this 'new model' that the people who have been twittering on about this for the last five years keep talking about but never actually come up with. As soon as you figure out a way to have professional creative writers in an environment in which they don't own the fruits of their labour so that they have something to sell, get back to me.

  2. "It does leave me wondering just how thoroughly one needs to think things through to hold down a tenured academic position." Yayaya, go Morris! Does this remind you of one of my first comments here, Jeff, when this issue was first raised in your blog? Let me go dig out my podcast, "Submission to Overland".

    • It does indeed, Paul – and that’s why I think your position is so strange. Morris Gleitzman is one of Australia’s most successful writers. The copyright on his books is worth something. Most writers, however, don’t make very much from their work under current arrangements. That’s one reason why I’m interested in alternatives to the current model of copyright, which works much better if you are a big-selling author or a very successful publisher than if you are an emerging author publishing with a tiny press.
      I can see why the bigger publishers defend the current situation. Don’t understand at all why you do.

  3. I don't see why Morris' success has any impact of the efficacy of his argument nor how the size of his income can reduce the accuracy of his observations.

    • Then you are missing the point.
      The Cory Doctorow argument on this – which I think is largely convincing – is that the biggest problem most writers have is not that someone else uses their work without attribution but that the world ignores them. If you are struggling to get a readership but someone puts a PDF of yours on Pirate Bay, well, you are better off, not worse off, since people are now at least reading you. If, on the other hand, you are already widely-published and well-read, the situation is quite different, since you’ll be losing royalties that otherwise you would have earned.
      That’s why the debate is not as simple as you think it is.

  4. It's quite curious how unreflexively many authors defend copyright when in other contexts – say, the music industry – there's an acknowedgement that copyright largely serves the big record labels rather than the artists. Of course things are a little different in the literary world but I think this issue brings out the contradictions in artists as producers – on the one hand, there's a sense of pushing against the tide for a notion of value that goes beyond the profit-margins of the market, of collectivity and sometimes a sympathy with mass action and struggle, on the other, the whole 'business' of being a writer – the ABNs, the invoices, the fiddly tax returns – continue to emphasise an identity as an independent contractor who has to look after their own individual interests. But I *do* think that a radical reinterpretation of copyright (which I'd be keen on) would require massive changes to a whole range of other things as well…

  5. There is no reason why current copyright laws would stop that from happening. If there was an advantage in being on Pirate Bay I would be happy to have my work on it. I would put it on there myself or I would thank the person who did. I would give my consent and the copyright law would no longer be in effect. The current laws don't stop copying with consent.

    • But of course most of the time the getting and giving of permission is not so simple, is it? How would someone know how to contact you? What if you were dead? Anyone who wanted to share the work would have to track down your estate. Most people are not going to do that — and so, unless they break the law, they don't share the work.
      Even if you think the existing alternatives to copyright are problematic, do you really want to defend the status quo? At present, anyone who wants to quote a couple of lines from TS Eliot needs to jump through a million hoops getting permission from the person who controls his rights. How is that a good thing?
      In any case, the internet makes violation of copyright almost inevitable. Most bloggers casually use slabs of material without authorisation. Should they be prosecuted?

      • The fact that consent can be difficult to get is hardly a reason to do away with it. All of the push for this is coming from academics (and a few others) who don't have to rely on their creativity for a living, who in fact make a living off of the creativity of others. You are never going to be able to construct a coherent argument that it is in the artist's advantage to give away their fundamental right to ownership and control of the work. And that is what this is about.

  6. There is an interesting difference between academic and non-academic writers (and it's not the one Gleitzman implies): academic salaries are not really related to book sales. The (very high) pricing of their books is based on the fact that libraries are the market. The professional motivation to publish books relates to influence/citations rather than sales. Consequently, academics generally aren't much fussed about piracy of their works, and are often the source of the pdfs that turn up on the web. (Another contributing factor is the ease of access to scanners in postgrad centres.)____The academic model might actually point a way forward for publishing in general in a world where the commodity form fails to allocate resources to reproduce the labour involved in production (writing, editing, typesetting).

  7. Re. Academic publishing, my understanding is that fewer publishing houses are doing it, because it is so uncommercial, and are consequently turning to digital libraries, ebooks etc, to allow them to continue to make work available. They are really on the cutting edge of many of the problems print publishing is facing. So, in that sense I am not sure academic publishers are a useful model – well, the pricing of their print product isn't useful, anyway.

    A copyright issue that seems to be coming up at the moment is that cafes are being expected to pay ever increasing amounts for the right to play music. I"m going to get the figures wrong but it use to be something modest, like a couple of hundred bucks, but now record companies are attempting to demand thousands. I assume this is so absurd, that, with the exception of big chain cafes, people will simply ignore them and hope they don't get caught – or not play the music owned by that music company. I've been looking for a link that elaborates on this – when I find one I'll post it.

    • Yeah, I didn't mean academic publishing companies, they're getting pushed out of the loop and that's a good thing. I mean the separation of pay to the author from book sales. Of course there's no way for non-academic writers/artists/musicians/editors/designers etc. to replicate that on their own – there would have to be some socialised way of paying the workers – as discussed in the thread last time this came up.

  8. It is quite right to argue against the apparent position "that sharing should maybe now be compulsory because it is so possible", though that position should not be attributed to Lynne Spender. The copyright laws are designed for those people who wish to protect their creative work from plagiarism, not to encourage open access. There is an open access movement doing that, and I have to admit that I lean toward that particular ethic. That is my choice and I choose it from a position in which I don't expect to earn any proceeeds from my writing. One day I am going to write something worth protecting (for financial or personal reasons) and I sure as hell will be disappointed if the copyright laws have been subsumed into a free for all open access Google matrix. Lynne Spender and Morris Gleitzman both agree that "the principle of copyright and of creators having some sort of protection of their work is just as valid as it ever was". Since it is Lynne Spender's argument that copyright laws shoud be re-thought to incorporate the challenges of the digital age, it is Lynne Spender's argument that must demonstrate precisely how that will be achieved whilst retaining the legal protections that have been afforded to the old 'print' school. Until then, it is not unreasonable for the likes of Google to face legal challenges, since it is those legal challenges that represent the search for a model on the Gleitzman side of the debate.

    • Re: BradFrederiksen commented on copyrights and wrongs
      I think that’s fair enough. Obviously artistic creators should have some protection as to what happens to their work, for aesthetic as much as financial reasons. But as Brad suggests, that protection needn’t — and IMO shouldn’t — take the form of traditional copyright.
      My memory of Spender’s article is she argued that the Google digitalisation project was only going to make one or two lines from each work available to searchers, sufficient that they could see whether a book contained a passage they wanted. If that’s true, then they publishers’ objection to it seems utterly counterproductive, since nothing could be more likely to encourage people to buy the book.
      To me, that’s a really important point that often gets completely turned on its head: the spreading of information is good for artists; the hoarding of information is bad for them. OK, that doesn’t end the debate. But it seems really strange for writers, whose occupation is based on communication, to bearguing so vigorously for ways to prevent communication taking place.

  9. I don't think Spender is saying there should be no copyright. She is talking about the extent of it – how broad it's reach should be and over how many years. As a novelist who got charged 300 pounds for using one line from Kerouac's On The Road

  10. . . . (oops) I would say that the issue isn't just the rights of living author's and their right to an income, it's to do with dead authors and the rights of their estates.

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