A lot of murmuring seems to be happening on the edges of my life at the moment, about copyright. It’s something all writers have a vested interest in, so since nothing else is happening in the crime fiction area of my life this week, I’m going to take the opportunity to muse randomly on the subject for a few hundred words.
I don’t know a single writer who wouldn’t want to claim absolute ownership of the words which appear in print with his/her name attached – but there seems to be a school of thought which claims that copyright limits people’s right of access to written material by requiring – shock, horror – payment to be made to the author.
At the same time, the very notion that essays, dissertations and other writings of similar ilk might not be absolutely, completely and totally original – that they might contain someone else’s words, downloaded from the internet, for instance – is regarded with equal shock and horror.
Seems to me some people need to make up their minds.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not for a moment supporting the right to plagiarize, and I shall continue to regard an author’s copyright as sacrosanct till my last breath. It’s just that the two concepts I’ve described seem to contradict each other.
Aspiring authors often ask me how they go about protecting their work to avoid infringement of their copyright. The answer, of course, is that there’s no need to do anything, because your copyright belongs to you and no one can take it away unless you decide to sign over the rights in exchange for life-changing sums of money – and you certainly shouldn’t do for for any less.
In fact there’s actually not a great deal you can do, except develop a more trusting nature. Agents, editors and the vast army of people involved in producing books are by and large honest folk who have a job to do; they’re not going to steal anyone’s magnum opus and publish it under their own name, which seems to be the fear besetting the poor insecure authors who feel a need to ask this question.
But what of the right to quote chunks of someone’s published work, properly attributed of course, for some non-nefarious but possibly lucrative purpose? Or to photocopy entire pages, maybe to use as visual aids or examples in one of the burgeoning plethora of creative writing courses available across the English-speaking world? Is there a way writers can claim a royalty when that happens?
Every now and again I get a phone call from someone from the Performing Rights Society, wanting to know why I’m not registered with them. The reason is that I don’t play music for the entertainment of my workforce – and the reason for that is I don’t have a workforce. But try telling them that. They take a lot of repeated convincing that there’s a) just me in the office, and b) no music playing in the background as I and my non-existent wage slaves ply our daily trade. The point, though, is that if I did employ people and even switched on a radio during working hours, I’d be liable for royalties which would then be paid to the people who wrote the music.
Here in the UK we do try to apply the same principle to the written word. An organization called the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society serves a similar purpose to the PFS. Any writer can join for a modest fee; the idea is that you register your published work with them, they collect fees and royalties for quotation and photocopying, and everyone gets an annual cut of the takings.
But you have to join. It’s up to the writer; the ALCS don’t chase up potential copyright infringers the way the PFS appear to.
I suspect that as long as writers join up words to make stories copyright will continue to occupy a place somewhere between vexed question and minefield. I don’t claim to have any answers. There probably aren’t any.