Great ideas and digital barbarism

I am prepared to stand on my copyrights, but when money talks, rights walk.

Jun 1st, 2009
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I am prepared to stand on my copyrights, but when money talks, rights walk.

By Jeff Bairstow

By and large, we ink-stained wretches are a pretty docile lot. We are content to pound away at our computers churning out words, sentences, and paragraphs that are read carefully by some and maybe barely appreciated by others—our readers. We continue to hope that those carefully crafted words will provide some modest financial return and worthwhile exposure of our ideas.

Put another way, we writers try to sell the rights to our carefully considered output to others for use in some form of media, such as this magazine column. This can be hazardous to both health and wallet, but, in most advanced countries, the rights to living writers’ works are somewhat protected by a copyright law for a limited time (in the U.S., that period is currently for 70 years after an author’s death).

When writing was, for the most part, a recreation for gentlemen of independent means (and more than a few gentlewomen), copyright laws were more easily observed and upheld. Today, with the giant electronic media companies, such as Google and Microsoft, sucking up media rights like there will be no tomorrow, old and new authors and old and new generations of publishers are taking pot-shots at each other with every opportunity.

The publication rights to the article you are now reading no longer belong to me. When this column was initially assigned to me, I agreed to sell all the print and electronic publication rights to PennWell Publishing Company of Tulsa, OK, the parent company of Laser Focus World—for a suitable fee. Thus, this column will appear not only in the magazine but may also appear on the LFW website. But not all authors are willing to reassign their publication rights and, as a result, possibly lose control over the wider use of their original works.

The latest copyright broadside comes from Mark Helprin, a prominent writer for The National Review, a conservative publication founded by the late William F. Buckley Jr. Helprin’s latest book is entitled Digital Barbarism, A Writer’s Manifesto, (Harper, New York, 2009, 232 pages). This slim polemic is actually the result of an earlier Op-Ed piece published in The New York Times, May 20, 2007, which produced more than 750,000 angry reader comments, according to Helprin.

In his new book, Helprin doesn’t beat about the bushes. “There’s a class of people ... funded mainly by corporations like Google and other Silicon Valley interests [who] want to abolish intellectual property,” he writes. “They say they don’t, but they say ... copyright is a tax, a monopoly, and a bar to creativity ... It’s none of those things.”

But Helprin is harking back to the older days of more gentlemanly publishing. I have to report that times have changed, Mark. It’s time you got with the program! As an aside, I believe that Helprin’s successful novel A Winter’s Tale was loosely based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. I don’t see Helprin as being likely to pay the Bard for his ideas and copyright.

One person who has effectively responded to Helprin’s arguments is Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University and one of the founders of Creative Commons, an alternative to the older copyright restrictions. Through Creative Commons agreements, authors can opt out of certain copyright restrictions and so maintain control over their works while still permitting wider usage. Creative Commons is an outgrowth of the so-called “copyleft” movement. These groups are described in some detail in entries in Wikipedia. In fact, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is largely based on Creative Commons principles.

On April 26 of this year, Helprin was interviewed on the “All Things Considered” program of National Public Radio (NPR) and Lessig was given the opportunity to respond. The interviews make for interesting listening and are readily available on the NPR Web site.

Of course one may argue until the cows come home about the virtues or otherwise of protecting intellectual property in print or electronic forms. It may be simplistic but, in my view, the rights question all comes down to money. I see both factions as susceptible to the power of pecuniary persuasion. I am prepared to stand on my copyrights, but when money talks, rights walk. We all have our price and the market may have another. What’s so barbaric about that?

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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