Paying for the right to copyright • 10 March 2012 • The SnowBlog

Paying for the right to copyright

I thought I'd pick up something I forgot to mention when talking about locks (=DRM) on e-books the other day. Let me just share with you the quote from Alan Baker that reminded me of the point I want to make: "Interesting comment in your piece: "letting the product circulate without too many restrictions builds the market; sales follow". There's some evidence to support this from Neil Gaiman (no less). I can't remember where I read it (probably on his blog), but he said that when one of his books was pirated and shared for free in a certain territory (I think it was Russia), subsequent sales of that book increased dramatically. Not exactly proof of concept, of course, but interesting; and it can be contrasted with the attitude taken by writers like Harlan Ellison, who says that his work belongs to him and no one else, and that if he wants to give it away for free on the internet, that should be his decision and no one else's." On the one hand, the 'piracy = advertising' idea is fascinating. Because if we were to think of piracy as just one form of 'giving it away for free', the entertainment industry's anger on this subject becomes just a little less justified. They're always trying to create buzz - and that's difficult if you don't throw around the content in public for people to see. They'd like to control that content, of course, but that's not to say piracy doesn't sometimes generate interest which translates into legit sales. But Alan's mention of Harlan Ellison was what I wanted to pick up. I'm very familiar with authors insisting that their property is their property, end of discussion. But what they never seem to do is offer to pay for their rights to be enforced around the world. Of course a right is a right regardless of whether you have the cash to make it a reality, but those in favour of strict copyright rarely seem to mention the cost of enforcement, as though the rest of us should just be happy to chip in on their behalf. And of course if we are expected to pay for the copyright police we generally want to know what's in it for us. And I think that's what constitutes the opposing force on copyright: when copyright is so strict that it fails to benefit non-authors, why should we pay to enforce it? Shouldn't those who profit from enforcement pay the majority of those bills? Harlan Ellison (to put words into his mouth) is offering us very little in return for the loan of our police force and judiciary to ensure no one reads a book of his without permission. But shouldn't we get something out of the deal? The idea that we'll protect your work while you're alive if you effectively leave it to us all in your will sounds quite sensible to me. But the idea that copyright might extend seventy years or more past the author's death sounds like something else is going on besides a sensible contract between originator and enforcer. I suspect it's the rentier mentality of the middleman at work, but it probably gets some support from hardline copyright fans who are authors who view their rights in terms of abstract entitlements and not real-world policing efforts. And that's not a small consideration. The recent attempts to got SOPA/PIPA passed in the U.S. were going to seriously inconvenience millions of people in order to protect Hollywood's copyright - and the only cash they were willing to cough up was what they pay in campaign contributions and presumably (don't-quote-me) fat bribes. Anyway, I would like to conclude with failed pomposity by mangling the following latin phrase: "Quis merciet ipsos custodes?" which may or may not mean, "Who recompenses the guards?"


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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