Friday, May 29, 2009


It's tough out there for a book blogger.

The publishing industry has been distressingly tame the the last week or so (of course, I've been sick, so it was nice of them to wait for me) All the same, it's time to uncork a big Bottle of Literary Chaos, don't you think?

Well. That didn't take long...

Kevin sent me an email to alert me that famed Swedish wordsmith (and watercolorist) Lars Gustafsson has riled some and energized others with an op/ed he published in the Swedish mag Expressen in favor of voting for the Pirate Party. The Pirate Party - you might recall - was named for and inspired by the Pirate Bay filetrading trial and exists to push an agenda of extensive copyright reform. (The Expressen link above will take you to a page written in Swedish, you can find his words in translation at Copyriot here.) In his article, he comes out strongly in favor of a more social ideal of setting aside copyright protections as an undue hinderance on the free exchange of ideas provided by the internet. He compares the Pirate Bay verdict and efforts by governments and the RIAA to squelch file-sharing to the efforts of the French government in the leadup to the revolution to squelch the printing of revolutionary tracts.

Copyright Protectionists as French Aristocrats putting down revolting peasantry and soon to meet Dr. Guillotine? Man the barricades and storm the Bastille? Does that mean we have Robespierre to look forward too on the far end, followed by Napoleon as well?

In some ways I agree with him, though I respectfully submit that the learned gentleman overstates his case. While I am apalled by the draconian efforts to encode DRM into my library to the point where the free sharing of beloved movies, music, writers and books with my peers will be actually illegal, I don't think this is necessarily an either/or proposition. Nor do I believe that history bears out the idea that copyright protection -- in and of itself -- stifles freedom of speech so much as it protects (on the whole) creators from penury whilst others party at their expense.

The argument has become the epitome of the reductio ad absurdum argument on every side.

The RIAA has been draconian and almost comically dictatorial, but they're not throwing people in the Bastille, they're suing them in civil court and losing rather a lot. On the other side are people who are benefiting financially from the efforts of others and some who have entire libararies without ever a thought for the creators. There must be a way to counter that without dragging twelve year olds into superior court and assessing $150,000 per track for the crime of being caught up in the dragnet.

On all sides, the arguments boil down to who owns the book on your shelf? Who owns the DVD or the CD in your player? Why does the format of a digitally downloaded song somehow change the manner in which we may use it? Why does the digitization of a book change whether or not I can lend it to a friend or resell it to provide revenue to buy more books? How does the exchange of paper for pixels alter the contract between the page and the reader?

They don't and there's no reason why they should.

I've said it before: the protectivist impulse to profit from every eyeball that looks at a page or every ear that hears a song forgets or ignores the communal aspect of the artform. It forgets that it was the word-of-mouth sharing of great and inspiring music and literature that created the industries so hellbent on stifling that very thing today.

To broaden this, there's the additional problem of the manner in which copyright and the abuse of copyright disallows works inspired by the protected works.

Not long ago, you may remember, I asked YA author John Green during a Q&A what his thoughts were on the Google Books settlement. During his answer, he mentioned that his Edgar Award-winning book Paper Towns would not have been possible if the heirs of Walt Whitman were are vigorous as the heirs of Walt Disney in assaulting the sunset provisions of copyright laws. His book hinges a great deal on the poem Song of Myself and would have been all but impossible to publish if it had been similarly dependent upon the song Message to Myself by Melissa Etheridge.

Not because it would have hindered Ms. Etheridge's ability to make money from the song -- his mostly-young readership would likely have flocked to iTunes to buy the song -- but because it would be considered infringement of extant copyright law. And by ignoring the infringement, Ms. Etheridge would have damaged any future effort to enforce her copyright when actual damage did occur.

As a copyright holder, I understand the frustration felt by other copyright holders. And I understand the kneejerk lashing-out that can ensue. Likewise do I like to think that there's room for reasoned response and discourse. Be that as it may, the book I purchase is mine and the cross-pollination of my collection and the collections of the people in my circle of friends makes more money than a similarly-sized digital libary that only I can use.

There has to be a middle ground where the artforms can prosper and spread by word-of-mouth without throwing open the gates and making it so that artists simply cannot support themselves by their efforts. Just my opinion, mind you.


  1. I don't read Gustafsson as saying that it is an either/or proposition:

    "The need of being read, of influencing, to formulate one's times may but does not need to get in conflict with the wish to sell many copies."

    Emphasis mine.

    In other words, the profit motive and the communication/understanding motive can often peacefully coexist, BUT (he says, and I agree) when they come into conflict, the former must take precedence. The arts are the way we -- both as individuals, and as society -- understand ourselves and make sense of the world around us. This is vastly more important than preserving the infinite wealth potential of Walt Disney's heirs (or whomever).

    I am totally on-board with your concerns as a copyright-holder but would also point out that the main problem most artists have had throughout history is not one of copyright infringement, but one of nobody knowing who the hell they were and what they did. People like you will always face an uphill battle as long as the gatekeepers can get rich off Dan Brown and Stephen King.

    But don't get me started on the gatekeepers.

  2. Sorry, his repeated references to material copyright being swept away as by a flood-stage river is what stands out most for me. The need to be able to support yourself by your efforts seems tertiary in his reckoning at best.

    For the most part, his article strikes me as trying to surf a tide he sees as unavoidable rather than seeking to shape a reasonable meeting between the two (lest he get swept away, I suppose, to continue his metaphor). Perhaps it's a matter of nuance lost in translation.

    We agree, I think, on how the misuse of copyright subverts the relatively-simple suggestion that creators should enjoy the fruits of their labors for a set period of time (Dan Brown and Stephen King included). It's those two guys' grandchildren that might trouble me. Brown and King's millions aside, most writers, musicians and other artists would simply like the ability and opportunity to devote more time to helping us - as a society - "understand ourselves and make more sense of the world around us".

    In all honesty, here in the US, this may be a waning issue as well with the opportunity to utilize the Creative Commons licensing. Radiohead aside, it's telling (to me) how few known artists are putting their copyright where their mouth is.

    One thing that sticks in my head is a story I heard recently on NPR about Charles Dickens. (forgive me if I get any of my facts wrong, I wasn't taking notes) Until early in the 20th Century, apparently the US would not issue copyright to a UK author and those works could be printed (and profited handsomely from) with no thought or monies given to the creator. When Mr Dickens first toured our shores he found himself enormously famous with people who had paid someone else for their copy of his books. Nice for his ego, but it doesn't put gruel on the table.

    In a world without protections, that's about what I think it would look like. Removing constraints won't solve the issue any more than ratcheting down the enforcement of those protections. Reasonable protections for the creators with reasonable (and real) sunset provisions and clear "Fair Use" provisions for ancillary and inspired works.

    Incidentally, I sort of made the mistake of conflating two issues in this post: Music DRM and e-Book DRM. I say they are two separate issues because the battle over music DRM is basically over with iTunes amd most other online stores selling DRM-free songs. The battle over how digital rights will be managed for books is barely begun.

    At any rate, we can only hope that the literary world can reach consensus without RIAA-like courtroom shenanigans between here and there.

    Like I say in the 'Terms of Use' statement: "Nothing found herein should be construed as the entire view of the author or anyone else living, dead or existing in an indeterminate state caused by fluctuations in space and time."


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).