Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Copyright. It's a piece of cake - John Dougherty

Who would have thought that copyright would be one of the issues of this election?

Not one of the major issues, obviously; not one of the really important issues like how best to eat a bacon sandwich, or whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to help make the laws or should just sit at the back doing raffia. But amid all the high-level politicking, someone noticed that the Green Party website expressed an apparent desire to reduce copyright to a period of 14 years.

Obviously, some people got cross. Some other people, however, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They started saying things like, It was an initiative to get copyright owned by artists & writers, not companies, and The idea is to support arts, and It is in all of our best interests to have a vast public domain, and No one needs decades of monopoly, and If you write a book and after 14 years you haven’t made enough money, maybe you should write another book.
Much of this demonstrates a real misunderstanding not just about the working life of the average writer, but also about the basic principle of copyright, which is this:
If I make something, it belongs to me.
This applies whether it’s a song, a story, a poem, or a cake. I suggested this to someone on Twitter, who replied, I give cakes away. And you know what? That’s fine. If you make a cake, and you want to give it away, you can. You can give it all to your friends, or you can put it on the wall outside your house with a note saying “Help yourself”, or you can throw it at the seagulls. That’s fine. It’s your cake.

Similarly, if you want to sell it, that’s up to you. You can set up a cake-stall and sell it slice by slice; you can put it on eBay; you can sell the whole thing to someone who forgot to bake a birthday cake, or who’s having guests round for tea and hasn’t been to the shops, or who has a cake-reselling business, or who just likes cake. Or you can ask the cake-shop down the road to sell it for you at an agreed commission. That’s fine. It’s your cake.

And if you want, you can leave it on the kitchen table till it goes stale and mouldy. You can hang it from a tree and throw apples at it. You can put it in the bath. You can bury it in the garden. You can do any of these things, because it’s your cake. Whatever you want to do with it, that’s fine.
What’s not fine is for someone else to decide that it shouldn’t be your cake, and help themselves without your permission. 
It doesn’t matter why they don’t think it should be yours. They can argue that you’ve got more than enough cake; they can argue that you wouldn’t have been able to make the cake if someone else hadn’t produced the flour & eggs & sugar; they can argue that cake should be for everybody. They can argue that the big corporations make too much money out of cake; or that wider distribution of cake benefits society; or that if you haven’t got enough cake then maybe you should make some more; or simply that they really really like cake. Some of these may be true, but none of them is relevant. Because it’s your cake.
Nobody’s been able to explain to me why a story or a song should be any different in this regard than a cake - or a business, to use another comparison. If someone builds a business up and then hands over the day-to-day running to an employee, would we say that after 14 years she should lose her rights either to profit from the company or to control its direction? I don’t think we would. If someone builds a house and then rents it out, would we say that after 14 years of not living in the house he should lose his rights of ownership? Again, I doubt it. When you strip away the sound and fury, most of the arguments for reducing copyright seem to boil down to one of two:
  1. I want free stuff
  2. The internet has made it easier for people to steal stuff
We wouldn’t accept either of these as a good reason for removing other property rights. I don’t see why intellectual property should be any different.

Cake images © Michael Dannenberg. Used with permission. Because, so to speak, it's his cake. 

Further reading:
The ever-wise Sarah McIntyre in defence of copyright
Jonathan Emmett on why, even as a solid supporter of copyright, he's voting Green. I think I may do the same. Thanks to Jonathan for sending me a link to this.
John Degen on myths about copyright. I found this one on Sarah's blog.
The wonderful Joanne Harris - again, thanks to Sarah for the link. This one contains a cool little test to help you work out if you support the copyright principle or not.
Tom Chance, a former Green party spokesperson on Intellectual Property, gives his view
The Society of Authors's statement in response to concern over the Green Party's position. The Society's quick guide to copyright may be found here.


John's latest book is the extremely silly Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Evilness of Pizza, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Nice way to put it. And you hear the same tiresome arguments time after time. Like, "Knowledge should be free!" and "Hey, it will get you lots of publicity!" During the Napster business one of our students was grumbling about no more freebies. "But I BUY CDs!" he argued. I asked him if he bought CDs of the music he had downloaded free from Napster and he admitted he didn't. People who wouldn't dream of shoplifting think it's okay to shoplift books from online.

Every time I see one of my books offered free online I see red!

Stroppy Author said...

Ah, there is no need for any comments, John, as this is *exactly* it and you have have said it so well.

Would you like some cake? Adele G is over the road and she makes excellent cake...

Catherine Butler said...

Very good piece, John. And in fact, why not extend the principle to all property rights? "You've been driving this car for a few years now, so isn't it time you let someone else have it?"

The only difference - and I think this confuses some people - is that unlike stealing a car or a sideboard that you've knocked up in carpentry class, downloading a copy of your book doesn't deprive you of your book (it's just a copy, after all...), but only of the income you might otherwise have derived from it. I suspect that's why some people seem to think it's a victimless crime, which it manifestly isn't. That, combined with the attitude you quoted here: "If you write a book and after 14 years you haven’t made enough money, maybe you should write another book", about which the kindest thing I can say is that it's, er, ignorant about the economics of writing.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for putting it so well -

Richard said...

Copyright is what allows the freedoms of the Internet (excepting piracy.) All of the licenses that allow open publication of content -- free, open source and creative commons -- are copyright licenses that depend on the continuance of copyright to function. Without copyright there would be no Internet.

Anonymous said...

I actually just cheered. Brilliantly put!

Julie Sykes said...

Brilliant John.


Susan Price said...

Hooray! Spot on.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

John an absolutely brilliant piece! I hope it gets picked up by the newspapers. You are spot on... funny too. It deserves airing.

Nick Green said...

Aaaah, John, you just disagreed with the Green Party, which makes you an eco-terrorist who drowns polar bears in oil. You want to have your cake and eat it...

I must say I'd never heard of that deranged policy. Bizarre what you discover when you dig down into the manifestos. It disturbs me, because now I'm associating raving lunacy with a party that otherwise has some good ideas (like, not destroying the planet). That such ideas should go hand-in-hand is very worrying. The idiocy of the copyright proposal tarnishes them all.

I'm off to buy a 4x4. Well I would if I could afford it.

(Actually wouldn't).

Nick Green said...

p.s. Just looked it up. Apparently the proposed policy is 14 years after death, not 14 years after publication. Although typically the Green Party themselves took ages to confirm which it was as they all seemed thoroughly confused and in the dark (must be the energy-saving bulbs, sorry, cheap shot).

That's slightly less crazy, but still problematic, as writers have families who might want to benefit from ongoing royalties if they exist.

Let's face it, it's not going to happen. The same arguments stand against piracy and free downloads, though.

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments. It's great to be posting on ABBA again after a few months off!

Nick - there has been a lot of confusion over the Green Party stance. As Sarah McIntyre pointed out, whatever the policy was meant to say, what it actually says is '14 years'. And at least one official Green Party spokesperson has told the press that that means 14 years after publication.

However, I am impressed that the official response is of the "Whoops! We may have to rethink this" variety, which makes a refreshing change. And I do hope the Greens don't lose votes over this - it's not actually in their manifesto; it's a long-term policy aim. And as Tom Chance says in his blogpost (linked above), it's from the same era as some rather silly "science"policies that they've since reviewed, following criticism from scientists. So they're willing to listen to the experts.

Nick Green said...

Perhaps woolly thinking is an unavoidable side effect of good intentions. Selfishly motivated people are never less than crystal clear about what it is they want, and nor do they ever forget the figures.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Best description of this I've read. The problem with 14 years even after death is that they clearly have no notion of the glacially slow pace of - for example - film companies. (And seem never to have heard of the Berne Convention either, to which we are signatories, but that's another matter!) A single example: the rights to Winnie the Pooh, sold to Disney for many millions, have since then funded hundreds of writers and many thousands of students with help for all kinds of academic (not creative) writing, via the Royal Literary Fund. I helped everyone from Nursing students to Education students during my stint and like to think that I did some good. Sometimes a great deal of good when young people were clearly under stress. Now they are also developing a reading programme in areas of social deprivation. Given a 14 year after death copyright term, any big foreign corporation would have waited a bit while developing ideas on the quiet, and then stepped in, said 'thank-you very much' and taken a massive freebie. Good that they are open to rethinking, but such ignorance does seem culpable.

Katherine Roberts said...

Thanks John, I didn't know about this... it's not very well publicised. And to think I once sort of almost thought about voting Green - not any more!

John Dougherty said...

Hi, Katherine. Actually, I hope the Greens won't lose votes over this - from their responses, it looks as if they accept this may be a mistake along the lines of the dreadfully embarrassing pseudo-scientific policies they once held but have now disavowed (see Tom Chance's blog, linked above).

In fact, I'm probably going to vote Green myself this time round - overall, they do represent my view best.

Anonymous said...

Just to be clear, this was a miscommunication.

Current Green Party long term policy debated and voted on by the members is for 14 years AFTER DEATH of the creator.

However, the manifesto has a slightly different pledge - to overhaul the copyright laws and bring them up to date. Something that's desperately needed.

A working group has already started looking into a suitable new policy to put to debate at the next conference, and any actual changes to law, should the GP be in a position to make any, would do done only after extensive consulatation with any interested parties. But with the interests of creators and the common good over those of corporations.

John Dougherty said...

Hi, er, Anonymous. Can you explain in that case why a Green Party spokesperson is quoted by both The Telegraph and The Guardian as confirming that the policy meant 14 years after publication? Or why the Green Party hasn't amended the policy wording to reflect what you say was actually meant?

I'm glad the party is looking at this, and hope that whatever they come up with at the very least does not risk weakening the rights of creators.

Patrice Aggs said...

Why am I leaving a comment? You put it so perfectly no comments are needed