Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Playing the Rent VI –Qualms About Copyrights

“No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property, because no good case can exist for treating with special disfavor the work of the spirit and the mind.”Mark Halpern, The New York Times, May 20, 2007

“When I appeared before that committee of the House of Lords the chairman asked me what limit [on copyrights] I would propose. I said, ‘Perpetuity.’”Mark Twain

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it."—Thomas Jefferson

Yes, I have been hesitant about writing about copyrights, in part because the idea is apparently so difficult for some to understand, and the “some” to which I am referring includes a large number of writers.

I think the reason why writers are sometime more that a little loopy on the subject is that copyrights are our lottery tickets, chips in the Big Casino. Of course, it’s not just professional writers who are a party to this, and it’s certainly not restricted to fiction. Anyone who hits sudden notoriety has a story to tell, and if the notoriety is salacious enough, it’s worth money, sometimes big money.

But fiction seems to be where the real lure arises. There’s the ego involvement thing. Behold! I have created something where nothing existed before! I am like unto a god, and you should bow down before me, or at least pay me a lot of money, because it’s mine, mine, I tell you! Bwahaha!

Yeah, there’s a lot of that. Never mind that it’s most likely a slightly below average attempt at a bit of genre fiction, derivative, clich├ęd to hackney’s depths, it took effort to produce and guts to put it out there, and it’s someone’s angel child.

I don’t usually put blog links into these essays, but there was a May 20th thread on Patrick and Teresa Nielson-Hayden’s “Making Light” that was prompted by the Halpern article I quoted in the beginning of this piece. Teresa, I believe, makes several good points in the comments:

Most works are somewhat derivative. Even much-imitated landmark works like Star Wars or Neuromancer are in many ways powerful new syntheses of older material. If you own the rights to such a landmark work, then to the extent that you can keep subsequent works from copyrighting implicit or potential aspects of that synthesis, your own right to such implicit or potential derivative works will be more valuable…

…nibbling-away of the uniqueness of influential works is a normal literary process. How, then, does the entertainment conglomerate maintain its long-term hold on the valuable rights to the source work? The obvious way to do it is to make sure that other authors don't hold the copyrights on subsequent works. Any story or narrative mindspace they and their heirs own is a story or narrative mindspace you don't own. You might have to pay them something for it, further on down the road. Best not to let them lay claim to it in the first place.
–Teresa Nielson-Hayden

Copyrights are not “natural.” When scribes did all the copying, there was no further need for state control of copyright, as the labor cost itself was the limiting factor in the spread of information. But with the invention of the printing press, publishing became a lucrative endeavor, all the more so it there could be some sort of monopoly on publishing generally, or, failing that, the publishing of a particular work. Copyrights, in other words, benefit publishers, the Owners of The Casino. We writers are just the gamblers holding the chips in the Big Game. But the Casino always winds up owning most of the stakes.

Without the Casino, there is no Jackpot, so writers often identify their fortunes with those of the publishers. Well, fair enough, without the publishers there are no fortunes to be made.

The Jackpot is a cruel temptation. I’ve said before, in other circumstances, that if you take up all the money spent by would-be writers of fiction, from the creative writing course fees, to the postage spent, to the paper and ink cartridges bought, not to mention the scams, dodges, vanity presses, phony agents, “readers’ fees” and all the rest, add it up and subtract it from every royalty and advance paid by the publishing industry, and you get a negative number. Maybe movie sales push it back into positive numbers, but I have my doubts, since movies don’t pay their writers that much, and it’s work-for-hire besides. And if I’m wrong, if it isn’t negative sum, it’s because of maybe ten writers, starting with J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, and ending with some writer that you’ve also heard of, Grisham, Clancy, the Usual Suspects. And you’d better ignore the vast amounts of time spent staring at the hellish blank screen, (formerly the blank page), or typing words that no one but the spouse will ever read, because if you add up that time and count it as even a quarter of minimum wage, then not even King and Rowling could make a dent in the debit.

So, one way or another, you’d better enjoy writing your stories, or at least enjoy reading them, because the likelihood of your making a living at it is comparable to winning Powerball, and in fact depends less on how well you write than a hundred other things.

Whew. I hope that’s out of my system for a while. Maybe I can get to actually writing about copyrights now.

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