Celebrating Books, Authors – and Copyright

There’s so much stuff going on today in the bookish world. It’s World Book Day (unless you’re in the UK and Ireland, where it’s World Book Night instead – yes, I agree it’s confusing), where people give books, and read them in public, and where the lives and work of famous authors – most notably Miguel de Cervantes – are celebrated. It’s wonderful to see books, and writing, and creativity, and storytelling, marked with such joy and enthusiasm, and I love seeing my Twitter timeline fill up with people wishing Shakespeare a happy birthday. It makes me happy that, so many years after the great man’s death, he is remembered and loved – not to mention his work. It underlines, to me, the wonder of books and literacy and stories, and how (much as people may think they’re not important) they’re one of the most vital aspects of human culture we have.

There he is now, keeping an eye on you. Best be reading something! Photo Credit: yumikrum via Compfight cc

There he is now, keeping an eye on you. Best be reading something!
Photo Credit: yumikrum via Compfight cc

Last night, I watched a programme on BBC about travelling the length of the Mekong River, which runs through Tibet, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Last night’s episode focused on Laos, a country where one in four people is illiterate, and schooling is sporadic due to its expense, as well as many other complex reasons. At one point in the documentary, the presenter and some local people took a mobile library (housed on a boat) to an isolated community, where they were met at the shore by at least a hundred laughing, dancing, clapping children, all of whom were overjoyed to see the books’ arrival. There was music, festivity, drama, and excitement, and then the children had the chance to board the library and choose a book. They then sat around, on rocks and hillocks and tucked into any nook or cranny they could find, and they each read, completely absorbed in the words and the stories they were experiencing. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen. I can’t overstate how incredible it was to see these children enjoying themselves so much through music, art, drama and literature, things which children in my corner of the world have laid out before them every day without realising how privileged they are.

I already believe in the power of literacy and how it affects the lives of children – who then grow up to become adults, of course, hopefully with their love of the beauty of creativity and culture intact. The programme cemented what I already know, instead of teaching me something new. But it was a truly wonderful piece of television, in any case.

But is creativity important? Should it be?

Today, as well as being World Book Day, is also World Copyright Day. Copyright can be a complex thing; there are people who feel that an author’s/artist’s copyright over their creative work shouldn’t be quite so long – and, to be honest, I’m inclined to agree, particularly when it comes to literary heavyweights like Joyce. Because of copyright restrictions, it was difficult to use Joyce’s work for scholarly purposes until very recently. Having said that, it is one of the only protections the ‘average’ creative has in a world which is already chipping away, steadily, at their precarious income. An author may take twenty years to become established, by which time their ‘backlist’ – the books they’ve written which are still in print, and still selling – may form the majority of their income. I do believe authors and artists should have a right to earn an income (note: I haven’t said ‘a living’, because most don’t come anywhere close, even in the best of times) from their work, and I do believe that copyright should extend the length of an author’s lifetime, so that this money is protected for as long as an author or artist is in need of it.

Maybe you don’t agree. Maybe you feel that if a person is going to be a ‘creative’, following that airy-fairy calling which comes to them from the stars, that they should fund it themselves, or do it purely for the love of it. Well, yes. People who want to create will create whether they’re being paid for it or not,  in the cracks and crannies of their lives, in the spare time they have between all the other commitments they’re living around. But what’s that doing to the idea of ‘art’ itself? Why don’t we want to foster a culture of creativity? Why do we heap such scorn on the heads of those who create, while flocking in our droves to the cinema to take in the latest blockbuster movie? Why do we illegally download TV shows and music, which we want to consume, but for whose creators we have scant regard? Why does the web proliferate with sites where people can download pirated copies of books? We already live in a world where books are seen as disposables, things which should cost pennies and which should be available to us whenever we want them. But who creates the things we consume? Why don’t we see the creative process as having value?

Yesterday, in time (ironically?) for World Book and Copyright Day, a political party based in the UK, which would have been the natural home for many creative types, announced its plans to reduce copyright terms to 14 years for creative work (including books, film, drama, and so on). This means that an author’s copyright would run out well before their death, and would open up scenarios where, during an artist’s lifetime, other parties – such as large corporations, maybe – would have the power to take their idea and turn it into something the artist never intended. Perhaps they’d make a movie out of their book, for instance, which the artist would never have sanctioned if they still had control, or perhaps they’d simply republish the work, maybe with subtle edits or changes which destroy the original artist’s vision – not to mention making money from it. But copyright isn’t always about money: it’s about ownership, and protection, of an idea which belongs – during your lifetime – to you.

95%, or more, of creative people don’t ‘profit’ from their work. They might earn a little, perhaps; enough to keep them going, keep them creating, make it worthwhile for them to invest their time and energy into the work, make it easier to juggle their other commitments in order to fit their creative work in. If we remove one of their only means of earning this small income, we destroy art, and we destroy artists. There are people who become very wealthy through art, of course, but those people are rare. I don’t want to see a world where culture is run by committee, or where art is designed by mega-corporations, and where everything we read or see or hear sounds exactly the same. I fear we’re already heading down that road, and drastically reducing copyright would contribute to this.

Reduce it, certainly. Perhaps allow copyright to span forty years, fifty at the most. This should protect most artists, which will protect our culture and the vibrancy and authenticity of our creative industries. But I tremble at the thought of it being cut away completely, or reduced so drastically as to make it worthless. It’s one of the few aspects of the creative life which offers any protection to those brave enough to try to make something new, and to add to the sum of human culture. Instead of simply consuming mindlessly, and misusing the innocuous-seeming word ‘share’ (which, in our modern world, seems to have more in common with ‘steal’), let’s try to protect our creative industries for the future.

That, to me, is the best way of celebrating World Book and Copyright Day. However you’re marking it, I hope you thoroughly enjoy the words and stories which are thick in the air today.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Books, Authors – and Copyright

  1. Kate Wally

    I don’t really know enough about Copyright law to comment, so ignorantly I ask – why *don’t* people own what they create for their own lifetime? Reducing the terms to 14 years sounds bonkers. What has lead the government to even care about modifying the laws?

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Currently – as far as I know – people do own what they create for their lifetime (at least in terms of copyright for artistic creations – the law is different around patents and copyright on inventions, academic discoveries and things like that). Reducing the terms to 14 years is, indeed, bonkers, but apparently the party in question has now clarified it meant 14 years after the author’s death, and not 14 years after a work is first copyrighted (which would, to my mind, be acceptable). I’m not sure they actually did mean that, or if they’ve been forced into it under the pressure of public opinion – but anyway! The party is unlikely to be returned to power, so in some ways the question is moot, but to me it’s worrying enough that such a proposal is on the table, anywhere, or even being considered. I find it scary, to be honest. I think the party in question is concerned about these issues because one of their priorities is the democratisation/sharing of information – which is fine, if you’re talking about open source software, or creative commons licensing, both of which can be entered into willingly – but if people are being forced to give up their rights, I can’t say I’m on board with it.

      Phew! What a rant. I’m not an expert either, and I hope I’ve understood everything correctly, but it has invited a lot of comment around the issue which can only be a good thing. If you search for Sarah McIntyre (artist, illustrator, picture book maker), she has been very active on Twitter and her blog on this issue over the past few days and her thoughts are well worth reading.

      Reply

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