Today I have a thought-provoking guest post from a talented writer named James Hutchings. I gave James every opportunity to shamelessly plug his short story collection, The New Death and others , but he chose instead to write about copyrights, intellectual property, and simple ways for all of us to be a bit less anal-retentive.
You'll be hearing more about James in a week or so when I post a story of his, The End. I encourage you to check out The New Death, which is insightful, highly original, and quite entertaining. In the meantime, here's a very accessible primer on a topic important to all of us as readers and writers. Take it away, James:
Many writers, whether published or just starting out, are very nervous that someone else will steal their work, whether that be another writer using their ideas in their own stories, or someone making pirated copies of their books. When I put out a collection of my writing, I specifically gave permission for anyone at all to copy my ideas, or even to cut and paste whole stories. I also contacted the Pirate Party, a worldwide network that wants to lessen copyright, and told them that I was giving anyone permission to put my ebook on file-sharing sites. In this post I hope to show why I went against common wisdom.
I used a free service called Creative Commons. Creative Commons is useful for people who want to give the general public permission to use their work, but with restrictions. In my case I didn't mind people using my work for non-profit purposes, such as posting on a blog, but I didn't want to allow anyone to make money off it. Similarly I wanted anyone who used it to give me credit. I could have just listed these things myself. However I'm not a lawyer, and perhaps I would have worded it wrong so that someone could twist what I said to do more than I meant. Also I could have been unclear about what I was allowing and what I wasn't allowing. Sure, someone could email me and ask, but the whole purpose of having a written statement is so that people don't have to ask.
Creative Commons has a series of different licenses, which give permission to do different things. They're all legally 'tight', and they're all summarized in plain language. So all you have to do is go to their site and answer a series of questions, to get to the license that does what you want. In my case I used the Attribution Non-Commercial License.
That's what I did. But why? Common sense would suggest that I'm giving something away for free that I could be selling. However I believe that, in the long run, I'll be better off. The main reason is that I've seen how many people are, like me, trying to get their writing out there. Go to Smashwords and have a look at the latest ebooks. Then refresh the page ten minutes later, and you'll probably see a whole new lot. The problem that new writers face isn't that people want to steal your work; it's getting anyone to show an interest in your work at all. If someone passes on a pirated copy of my work, it might get to someone who's prepared to buy it - and that someone would probably have never heard of me otherwise. Even if they don't want to pay for what they read, I might come out with something else in the future, and perhaps paying 99c for it will be easier than hunting it down on a file-sharing site.
Science fiction writer Andrew Burt tells the story of someone who disliked his book, and to get back at him decided to put a copy on a file-sharing site. The effect was that he got a small 'spike' in sales immediately afterwards.
I also have some less selfish motives. Many people would assume that the purpose of copyright is to protect authors and creators. Leaving aside the fact that someone else often ends up with the rights (how many Disney shareholders created any of the Disney characters? How many shareholders in Microsoft have ever written a line of code?), that doesn't seem to have been the intention in the past. The US Constitution says that Congress has the power "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Note that protecting 'intellectual property' isn't mentioned. The authors of the Constitution seemed to see the point as getting ideas out there where people can use them: almost the exact opposite of keeping them 'safe' and 'protected'.
The original idea of copyright seems to have been a sort of deal: you have an idea, and we want you to get it out into the world where it will do some good. To encourage you to do that, we'll give you a monopoly on its use for a limited time. After that, anybody can use it (it will enter the 'public domain').
A lot of people don't know that copyright used to give a lot less protection than it does now, especially in the United States. In the US, it used to be that works were copyrighted for a maximum of 56 years. Today copyright in the US can last for over 100 years. In fact Congress keeps extending the time. In practice, they're acting as if they never want ideas to go into the public domain.
This is great for the owners of 'intellectual property'. But it's hard to see how this "promotes the Progress of Science and useful Arts," or how forever is a "limited time." In a sense it's a theft from the public. Anyone who publishes work has accepted the deal that the law offers, of a limited monopoly in return for making their idea known. Congress has been giving them more and more extensions on that monopoly, but doesn't require them to do anything to earn it.
It probably doesn't matter that much that Disney still owns Mickey Mouse, or that Lord of the Rings is still under copyright. But remember that these laws don't just apply to the arts. Similar laws apply to science as well. So a life-saving invention could be going unused, because its owner wants too much money for it, or because it's tied up in court while two companies fight about who owns it.
I'm far from an expert on either the law or the publishing industry. However I hope that I've given you, especially those of you who might be thinking about publishing some writing, a different take on the whole issue of whether authors should worry about their ideas being stolen. At least I hope I've shown you that there's a different way of thinking about it, and that that way doesn't require you to just give up on making money; in fact that it might be more profitable as well as better for society.
James Hutchings lives in Melbourne, Australia. He fights crime as Poetic Justice, but his day job is acting. You might know him by his stage-name 'Brad Pitt.' He specializes in short fantasy fiction. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, fiction365 and Enchanted Conversation among other markets. His ebook collection The New Death and others is now available from Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. He blogs daily at Teleleli.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License.