The Great Copyright Debate

So, most weekdays, instead of staying at home like a normal writer, I go work at this great co-working space downtown.  The idea is you pay a monthly membership and you’re guaranteed a desk, the internet, and you get use of the kitchenette and a discount on coffee from Mighty Good coffee, which is a local roaster.  I crave change of scene and human contact, so it’s a good deal.

But today the human contact came in the form of a rather…spirited discussion about the nature and origin of copyright, which, I’ll be honest left me a little boggled.

It was asserted by the other person in this discussion, that copyright had its origin in the fact that it used to be labor intensive to produce a book so it used to be fair to pay the book’s creator for each copy.  Now, it is easy to produce a lot of copies of books, and so it didn’t make sense to pay the creator eternally for work only done once.

He further went on to excoriate the greed of authors in extending the length of copyright out to the current ridiculous lengths, and to say that with increased literacy rates a lot more people were able to write books so authors had no right to expect to make such high wages for their work.  No practicioner of any other profession, after all, is guaranteed an income.


I’ve known there exists a lot of confusion about the nature and purpose of copyright, but I hadn’t encounted this particular variaton of it before.  First of all, the reason for copyright is only tengentially about how much work it takes to create an individual copy of a book.  Copyright is about the idea that an author, or other creator of intellectual work, has a right to say who gets to distribute and profit from their work and under what conditions.  It is the concept that the creators of intellectual works should, like anyone else who produces a product, be able to negotiate the best possible return on their labor, and reject all other offers.  Further, if the book’s publisher and the book’s seller are going to make money off every copy of the book sold, for as long as it is available, then the author also should also get to make money off every copy of the book, for as long as it is available.  After all, without the author, the publisher and bookseller would have nothing to sell.

Further, the idea and purpose of copyright is that I have the right to say my work is mine.  It is my property, not yours.  Although you may own a copy of my book, you cannot claim my created story as  yours and make money off it as yours or chop it and change it as if it was yours.  That’s theft, and I have a right to take you to court because you didn’t do the work you are claiming to have done.

If an author wants to put work out into the zeigheist for anyone to play about with, I’m all for it.  But it should be the choice of the author, the owner of the work.

Second problem.  Authors have next to nothing to do with the continual extension of the length a particular work or creation is covered by copyright.  I certainly think it’s gotten ridiculous.  It is the publishers and the media corporations that have pushed for these extensions.  The hot bet is that Disney is the big mover and shaker behind it, because they don’t want to risk the early Mickey Mouse cartoons falling into the public domain. Do not mess with the Big Mouse.

Finally, yes, it is probably true that with the rise of literacy, and the internet, and cheap paper or paperless technologies, a lot more people are physically capable of writing books.  And it is true, this does contribute to the downward pressure on the amount of money paid out to individual authors by publishers.*

However, just because a lot of people can do something, doesn’t mean those people will be as good as the people who are trained and practiced in the art and business of doing it.  Doesn’t mean they won’t either.  There is such a thing as a natural talent, but it’s rare and people who have it usually quickly expect to be paid for the exercise of it.  But anyway, by this person’s argument, because a lot more people have pliers in their house, we shouldn’t expect to pay dentists as much because a lot more people are capable of pulling teeth ( I know what you’re thinking, by the way, and I agree — reading some books IS a lot like pulling teeth).

And finally, I do not expect to any guaranteed of income.  I am part of a market economy, after all.  I have a product to sell, but if nobody buys it, I’m SOL, and in fact, have been in the past (and probably will be again in the future).  But as the producer of a product, it is not unreasonable, IMHO, to expect to share in the profits made off my labor for as long as there are profits to be made, or until I’m six feet under, whichever comes first.  This is after all, the deal every single other working professional has.


* For the record, my advance on my first book in 1994 was $7,000.  My advance on my latest book, written almost 20 years after that first book was…wait for it…$6,000.  So, either I’ve gotten worse at what I do, (God, I hope not), or I’ve just taken a pay cut.  Either way,





The Great Copyright Debate — 4 Comments

  1. There’s an interesting related discussion of this same kind of warped reasoning going on at Futurismic. A pirate told Nancy Kress her texts are everyone’s property. Make sure to check out the comments.

  2. Admittedly the copyright time period has gotten too long, but I don’t understand people who feel it’s fine to steal writers’ work. They wouldn’t like it if someone stole ANYTHING of theirs. Le sigh.

    And it’s depressing that advances have gone down, unless the name on the cover is a celeb.

    Great post. I’ll be linking back to you.

  3. Where did you find this person, Maya? Very, very occasionally, some of my students will express support for downloading songs “to see if they like them.” Others have bought the music downloading line that the performers can make money from concerts, etc. I’ve never spoken to someone like this IRL. I thought they existed only online.