(artwork: Christopher Dombres, Creative Commons license)
Copyright is a battlefield for creative types—authors, bloggers, musicians, and artists. As both a producer and a user of digitized content, I want the rights to my creative output (such as it is!) protected and strive to respect the rights of others. At the same time, I want to enrich my content with good graphics, audio and video content, and the resources of other works.
A recent Louis Menand article in The New Yorker crosses into this fraught territory, starting with a little history. Legal backing for copyright began with Britain’s 1710 Statute of Anne, and, in the United States with Article I of the Constitution, giving Congress power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1790, the law set that time limit at 14 years, renewable for another 14. By 1998, as a result of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the time limit was extended to the author’s life plus 70 years—which some regard as a lengthy prison sentence for creative works.
Menand points out how different our attitudes about copyright are in the print versus the online worlds. “If , a year from now, someone else, without my permission, reprints my article . . . I can complain that my right to make copies is being violated.” Most people, Menand asserts, would agree with that. But if a Web site (like this one) posts an article referencing Menand’s piece and hyperlinks to it on The New Yorker website (as this one does), that seems normal in today’s world. Even a service. Courts have questioned the propriety of this, and it remains a grey area.
Meanwhile, billions of files are being downloaded—perhaps 40 billion a year—and an estimated 94% of these downloads are illegal and unmonetized, to the tune of $552 billion so far this year, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Tru Optik (“Game of Thrones” has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most illegally downloaded TV series).
Despite the uncertainties, various bibliographic initiatives worldwide are attempting to digitize the content of written works. Most visible in this country is Google’s effort to scan all known existing 129,864,880 books by 2020, an effort that has been plagued by numerous lawsuits. Google settled with publishers in 2012, and authors plan to appeal a negative ruling a year ago that deemed Google’s efforts “fair use,” since only “snippets” of text are provided for works under copyright protection, unless the copyright owner has granted permission for a more expansive view. However, the status of copyright protection is not always clear, as many potential rights-holders are unknown. (Google Books is a boon to genealogists, I can tell you.)
These disagreements arise in part because of a fundamental conflict in people’s understanding of the purpose of copyright. On one hand are those who think that, as Menand put it, “individual rights are intended to promote public goods.” These are the people, like the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who want to see works moved into the public domain for sharing, education, and entertainment. Historian Peter Baldwin characterizes them as “Silicon Valley.” On the other hand are those who believe the right to control one’s works “is not a political right. It’s a moral right.” These are people who want to maintain absolute control—Hollywood and the music industry.
The latter view comports more closely with European than Anglo-American views on the matter. My literary hero Charles Dickens conducted several popular speaking tours in the United States, in 1842 and thereafter, in which he read from his works. They added to his fame here, but his purpose was as much to fight for U.S. copyright protection for his and other foreign works, something that didn’t happen until the early 1890s.
The “moral rights” view is what gives the Broadway producers of Urinetown the ability to sue Akron’s Carousel Dinner Theatre for using “significant aspects” of the original Broadway production—direction, choreography, and design—beyond the script and songs for which the Ohio theater had a license. At the other end of the control spectrum, Menand says Samuel Beckett and his estate were well known for requiring theater companies wanting the rights to produce his plays to comply literally with Beckett’s stage directions. (Perhaps this is why all productions of Waiting for Godot look so bleakly similar—in form as well as content.)
On the Web, the problems and opportunities for misuse of others’ content are multiplied. It’s temptingly easy to obtain words, pictures, film, and music files to repost. The perils of doing so are described here and here. While one might think the sea of website postings offers virtual invisibility for a tiny misuse or sloppy repost, technology works against the user, through imbedded code that might as well put a flashing red light on an unauthorized use and search engines that patrol the web looking for them.
When I started my blog two years ago, I was clumsy in attempts to find good pictures for my posts and used a couple that were found and taken down and replaced with flashing warnings. Embarrassing, to say the least. Now, I check the “labeled for reuse” status in Google Images, have a slight preference for Creative Commons licensed pictures, or use one of my own. I also like the free and low-cost options at Imgembed, and while I can use those purchased photos on my website, I haven’t yet solved the problem of using them in the related social media promotion.
Yesterday, I posted a lighthearted exchange about Eminem and M&Ms, and found a trove of photos linking the two. Most appealing—and found with a second search under “labeled for reuse”—was a graphic portrait of the star created out of the candy. Perfect! I looked at the source website, which is an aggregator of cartoons and images that has lots of rights information for submitters but no information for reusers. I posted the photo, then, working on this article, pulled it down and sent the aggregator a permission request, returned to me as undeliverable. I know somebody “created” that artwork and should have credit. Absolutely not worth it to use it.
In one of my novels, I want to refer to lines from “Burnt Norton,” the wonderful T. S. Eliot poem. I’ve heard his estate is prickly about granting usage rights, even though a “Burnt Norton” Google search generates some 2.87 million results. I’ll work around it. There’s only so much time to write, and none at all to sit in endless conferences with intellectual property lawyers.
The Copyright Wars – by Peter Baldwin, 2014.
Stanford University Libraries Copyright and Fair Use Center – helpful advice, including for Web usages