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Monday 10 December 2007

Wendy Cope on Copyright

I must confess to slight disappointment at the tone of Wendy Cope's remarks (Guardian 08.12.07) on the vexed question of copyright, the purpose of which, surely, is to ensure that poems, novels, photographs, whatever remain the intellectual property of their creator and that any financial returns from said creations are not creamed off by the more unprincipled among us. That said, the internet has, for good or ill, changed many things, not least the popular mindset concerning material that is in the public domain. Is it really likely that the publican who painted a verse on a beam in his pub would have done so had it been pointed out to him that it was going to cost? And how many surfers who will happily download a verse, perhaps as a rather more pleasant alternative to reading it from the screen, would be prepared to pay for the privilege? It does not follow that if such a surfer could not download the poem (let us say because conscience forbade it), then the author would profit from the sale of another book. So not every "illegal" use of copyright material is actually taking cash from the author's pocket. It seems a little naive to think that someone who so liked one of Cope's poems that she sent it to all of her friends would, deprived of that option, have bought a copy of the book for each of them, or that recommended by her to buy it, they would all have rushed out and done so. Surely they would more likely have been persuaded to invest by receiving a copy of the poem? I have more often bought a newly published book on the strength of a review containing extracts from the book than as a result of reading the reviewer's unsupported opinion.

I do not wholly disagree with the substance of Cope's remarks. It is, as I have said, with the tone of them that I would take issue. Perhaps we need a means of allowing a more relaxed attitude towards the uses that can be made of copyright material, and at the same time a means of tightening the defenses against the rip-off. A simplification of the laws might be a good place to start. Wendy Cope may be able to explain them with a smile, but they hold many a pitfall for the mind not legally attuned.

Of course, crediting the author is but a matter of politeness, as is asking permission. Most authors I have found are only too willing to give permission - they are a friendly, supportive lot - but politeness is not something to be enforced by the law. For the occasional user of copyright material, the hurdles must occasionally seem insurmountable, not the least of them being the question of whether a particular work (especially in the case of photographic images) is in or out of copyright. (I get the impression that Cope would like material to remain in copyright for ever!) Others problems may include: not knowing the identity of the author - easily remedied on the web, of course - or how to contact him or her. Replies often take a long time to come (authors are busy people with big post bags), and may arrive too late.

The music industry has organised things rather more efficiently - but the best of schemes, it seems, is no match for the internet. A registration scheme along the lines of that employed for patents might help in an ideal world - but then, in an ideal world there would be no need of copyright. No, I am sure there is no other way in the long run than to adopt a more realistic mindset.

1 comment:

Jim Murdoch said...

An intelligent response, Dave, to an issue that's a problem for all of us. I think the whole thing boils down to intent. If I quote an author my intent is, generally speaking, to promote his work. Even when I disagree with his stance at least I'm allowing him to have his say in his own words. There is the loophole of "fair use" and I never thing I've been unreasonable in my quotes, usually only a sentence or two to add seasoning to an otherwise dry article. I also do a lot of linking rather than simply quoting to enable my readers to have access to the quote in its original context one of the great boons of the internet. I am not looking to make a profit out of my blog though. A quotation in a published novel, something I would be charging the public hard cash to read, is another issue entirely.