Seems it’s about time to do one of these again. I don’t think my position has particularly changed, but some of these thoughts are worth restating, at least from my point of view. Look away now if you disagree!
Copyright. When you think about it, it’s kind of an odd idea. It has a pleasing emotional sense, right up until you end up on the wrong end of it, or think a little too hard. According to the simple explanation on the government’s website, copyright
- prevents people from copying your work
- prevents people from distributing your work
- prevents people from renting or lending your work
- prevents people from performing, showing, etc. your work in public
- prevents people from adapting your work
- prevents people from putting your work on the Internet
You get it automatically and don’t need to make any note of this, and it lasts decidedly longer than you’re going to be alive, since the term is “life plus…”. It propagates to other countries by a variety of international agreements, so is in effect around a pretty big chunk of the world.
So, great, right? Every last little thing I come up with, this blog post included, gives me the legal ammunition to shoot down anyone who might decide to use it in some way I don’t like. And in some senses, this does have its merits. For example, in the rather unlikely event that Disney (chosen as an example because they’re a big name, not because I have a specific bone to pick with them) should decide to adapt one of my books into a film (I don’t know, maybe they all went mad?) without in any way acknowledging me, I do get to step forward and whack them with a rolled-up copy of the law. Or at least, I would if I had the money to hire a solicitor, which I don’t and they do, so they’d probably get away with it. But, hypothetically, I could stop the ridiculous force of their massive amounts of money from totally obliterating me as the original author, or even potentially reversing anything I’d intended to say in the story and having that publicly accepted instead of the original design. (Does anyone remember the whiplash reversal between the amazing “Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” book and the “The Secret of NIMH” animated film, which was… well, as a film it was probably pretty okay, but compared to the book, just no?) Though, again, big companies and their immense legal teams tend to put all kinds of clauses into their legal agreements that basically mean you don’t get much say at all once you’ve signed up to something like that, so read the documentation first…
That extremely qualified potential positive aside…
What I do here is all about intangibles. It’s about ideas. About what I think, and how I think, and what I dream, and what I choose to share. I’m perfectly free to choose not to share any of this nonsense. By this far down the post, you’re probably wishing I had chosen not to share it! There are half-finished posts in my drafts collection that will never be posted, random cuttings on the floor I haven’t got around to deleting, or maybe just don’t quite want to delete. That’s fine.
But the moment I post this post, I put this set of ideas out there. I deliberately attempt to transmit my thoughts into your mind. My phrasing applies filters to them; your interpretation applies filters to them; the assumptions of our respective societies apply filters to them… and you end up with a set of thoughts in your mind which (unless I’ve made a grave error in my attempts at communication) bear a strong resemblance to mine, but which, by virtue of being in your mind, are now your thoughts.
So here you are, thinking something. And maybe you want to share what you’re thinking with the world. Maybe what you think isn’t what I wanted you to think, but you want to share it anyway. You go out onto the street and tell someone, or you go out onto your own little bit of Internet space and tell someone. You tell the world what’s on your mind — and what? Suddenly, because I caused you to think these things, I get to tell you that you’re not allowed to ever tell anyone that you thought them? Even if I don’t agree with them, that’s not okay!
But wait, I hear, that’s not what copyright is for! Well, one, it’s what a lot of people use it for, whether or not it should be used that way, and two, I’m about to get to two.
The intent, as I understand it, is to ensure that the author gets recognised, paid, or otherwise rewarded for their work. Which, again, is a rather nice idea. I like getting paid. It keeps me alive. But… still, fundamentally, this is an idea we’re talking about. (And also, what is with that “life plus” part?! I can’t be rewarded for my work if I’m dead!) An idea that, once it’s flown the coop, isn’t going to come back in. Computers give all of us an eidetic memory. Everything we’ve seen once can be recalled forever, and copyright and other so-called “intellectual property” sometimes veers dangerously close to making memory a crime. Heaven forbid I should do what I’m perfectly capable of doing (my terrible memory for almost everything under the sun is counterbalanced by my bizarrely good memory for stories) and recite from memory a book I’ve read or film I’ve watched almost word for word.
Ideas aren’t a currency. They aren’t a finite resource. If I share an idea, I still have it, and now so do you. If you like my idea, then I would hope that, at some point when you’re in a position to, you’ll reward me for sharing it. But I don’t believe I have any right to demand that from you. Would I be telling these stories anyway? I would, but that’s a decision for the individual author to make themselves.
No-one asked me to tell my stories. I just wanted to. I’m happy that people are listening; I’m even more happy that people thought it worth giving me (and my various intermediaries) money to hear the tales I have to tell. But that doesn’t mean you owe me a living. It isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a right for me to force you to never tell them to another living soul on pain of legal proceedings.
(Funnily enough, I actually do make most of my living from a very different form of the transmission of ideas. However, in that setting, I get paid for every hour I spend transmitting, because successful transmission requires me to be there. I have to spend time with the person I’m imparting knowledge to, get to know them, adjust for how they think. If I didn’t, if it was just set-and-forget…)
P.S. Like just about everything else on this blog, this post is up under a CC-BY-SA license. Attribute me and use the same terms, and we are cool no matter what you do with it. Don’t, and I make a frowny face. Attribution is the one thing I do think should perhaps be protected, but the majority of people would mention it as a matter of course anyway. The rare cases of people passing off your work as their own are unpleasant, but fundamentally silly, and I’m okay with that carrying some sort of mild swat, although quite frankly the general social disapproval would be fine by me as long as it was easy enough to get the word out. The fact that it isn’t uniformly easy to get the word out is the primary reason for keeping the CC-BY-SA over the full-on public domain. I hope that isn’t too inconsistent of me, but there it is.