February 15th, 2007


Jonathan Lethem on copyright


....few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.*

This has been an oft-raised topic. Over and over, we return to this. The "information wants to be free" vs. the right of the author to profit by their creation. It's become an intellectual war. Just yesterday, I was conversing with a client who has been getting repeated emails from her fans because a book recently released by another author has a number of concepts and structures in common with a book my client wrote and published years ago. Her fans are concerned that this person is stealing from her. Having read about 1/2 of the book in question, I concluded it was influenced by and inspired by the previous book most certainly. I would call it an homage, though, not an infringement. Many of the concepts cited by the fans are part and parcel to our cultural and artistic melting pot. How can we divide those and say they are only owned by one person? And how can art exist in a solitary space? Isn't it a conversation between artists speaking with each other and speaking to the world?

Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own—artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. In the children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. “Real isn't how you are made. . . . It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”*

And, yet, I make my living by helping authors get published and therefore buying heavily into this system of the ownership of ideas, or rather the ownership of the expression of those ideas. How can I say what I say above, and also find Jonthan Lethem's article so compelling? Isn't there an inherent conflict there? I guess I agree with good ol' Thomas Jefferson. Copyright is a necessary evil. Because we need to provide an incentive for the creators to create and not just toil at the 9-5 jobs and never have the time or the energy. Gone are the days when a noble or well-to-do merchant would sponsor an artist and keep them from not-quite-starving in their garrett as they communed with their muse (and then take credit for the creation in their cultural salon or gentlemen's club). Now we must rely on the public to do the same and on corporations to provide the avenue for the public to do so.

One does wonder, though.... will Mickey Mouse ever be in the public domain?

In any case, go read the whole article. The more people understand copyright (because it seems so many don't, even those who are attempting to use it to their advantage), the better off the artistic world will be.

*Italic sections are quotes from the Lethem article
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