Friday, 3 July 2015

Copyright is Indefensible

I don’t mean morally indefensible. That is something about which there is heated argument. I mean, literally, practically, impossible to defend. High-quality copying of printed material, recorded music, films, pictures, etc. is now something people can do at home, unobserved, and they do, and will continue to do so. And ‘people’ here does not mean just those who care nothing for the rights of writers and other artists; those who simply want to steal their work. I am am a member of PEN and of the Society of Authors, and even of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, which latter’s job is to collect and distribute to the original creator fees for legitimate copying. I care deeply about the right of creators to be paid for their work. Nevertheless, I do my best to get the works of other writers without paying for them, and I know that other people do the same with my work, and good luck to them — I want as many people as possible to read my stuff; surely all writers do? Though it does get up my nose when I see my stuff all over the internet but without my name attached, and some silly little blogger trying to take credit for what she didn’t write herself. But I don’t regard myself as the ‘owner’ of what I write: if something someone makes achieves the status of a work of art — and I believe just a few of my writings have done that — then that thing becomes everybody’s property, or nobody’s. God’s, if you like.

Until recently, writers and musicians themselves were the main defenders of copyright. Publishers, record producers etc. tried to get copyright assigned to themselves; to take it away from the creator, whom they tried to tell he didn’t need it, (The Guardian newspaper, of all people, still tries this on, I’m afraid,) but the publishers etc. wanted it because actually they knew it was valuable. Now, quite suddenly, they are the great defenders of ‘intellectual property rights’, but of course only because of their own ‘right’ to make money from our work.

The argument is presented unfairly: copiers are castigated, called thieves, but call themselves defenders of freedom.

But why should I, a writer, be against copyright? Because, as I said, it is indefensible. So do I care nothing for the ‘rights’ (that is to say, ultimately, the survival, the ability to make a living) of creators? On the contrary, I care very much.

So what would I like to see in place of copyright? This will be dismissed as hopelessly utopian; nevertheless: What I would like to see is an expansion of organizations like the Royal Literary Fund to a State level. The RLF already does excellent work in this field: I myself get a pension from them. This is how it works: writers applying for support from the RLF are asked to present copies of their work. A committee of, among others, fellow writers assesses literary — note, literary, not commercial — merit, and payments, often repeated, so amounting to a modest salary, are duly made, if you’re any good. ‘Good’; not, or not necessarily, on the front table at Waterstones because your publisher has decided it’s in his interests to bribe Waterstone’s to put it there.

And that, in outline, is how creators should be paid for their work. It shouldn’t, with such a system, then matter to the creator very much — in fact it ought to please him — if his stuff was got cheaply or free by the public, copied, sent to friends, posted on the internet, etc.

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