Saturday 9 January 2016

A Question of Copyright

As so many of my conversations now begin: somebody recently posted on Twitter...

About a program called Fingerprint My File. You can pay a monthly subscription to give your files a digital fingerprint, proving your ownership of that file without having to upload it to someone else to verify, thereby potentially giving away the creative ideas you're attempting to protect by copyrighting them in the first place.

It's sort of the modern version of posting your work to yourself in a sealed envelope, and, with the cost of stamps today, about the same price.

I started thinking about whether this was an essential part of an author's toolkit. As with the postal 'poor man's copyright', neither method seems to do more than prove you date-stamped a file. It doesn't prove you didn't nick the ideas inside that file from someone else.

On which note, it's worth dispelling the myth that someone can steal your ideas. At least in literary terms:

Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create. An idea alone is not intellectual property. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do. -

If everyone in the world could say 'I thought of that first,' without ever having written it down, no one would ever be able to write anything again.

I've seen people on writing forums get really paranoid about sharing their work online. What's to stop someone reading the sample, loving the idea, then re-writing it? Well, if they re-write it well enough, not a lot. We all draw from the same pool of imagination, there's apparently only seven basic plots we all use, and, speaking from experience, it's surprisingly easy to channel the voice of a dead author.

Just before the publication of my debut novel Angorichina, I picked up a short story by Somerset Maugham called The Sanatorium, because it was also set in a TB sanatorium. I was utterly mortified to discover that one main character looked almost identical to my own (Laura Wheeler/Ivy Bishop - young, pretty redheads), two old men were feuding vigorously (Joe & Sean/McLeod & Campbell) - one of each dying in a similar manner - and we both had a character with the exact same surname (Templeton)! A friend suggested the spirit of Somerset Maugham was speaking through me - I just wish he'd had something more original to say.

A complete fluke, but I would have been sceptical if someone else had told me that. A couple of years back, I submitted a comedy sketch to an open call. They didn't use any of my material, but a few weeks later I was listening to their program and an almost identical sketch came up. It was so similar, I actually said 'that's mine' out loud. I still harbour suspicions, but it was a political sketch that stood more chance of being accidentally double-dreamt than Sumerset Maugham's short story. It was very similar in concept, it wasn't word-for-word exactly the same.

Which brings me to the key point that bothers me about copyright, and programs like Fingerprint.

Even if you suspect copyright infringement - what are you actually going to do about it?

I mean, there are things you can do.  Copyright is a civil matter in both the US and UK. Provided you're claiming less than £10,000 lost earnings, it's a small claims matter through the Intellectual Property Claims Court, which costs between £35-£455 to initiate and doesn't require a lawyer. If you're a member of The Society of Authors, then you're entitled to free legal advice as part of your membership.

You can do that, but would you?

It's up to you to pay the court fees, and there's no guarantee you'll get them back, or your expenses (transport to and from court, time off work...) It's a big gamble. One website encouragingly pointed out that, because it's not a criminal matter, you don't have to prove they are guilty - you just have to convince the court you're right.

Well, therein lies the crux of the matter. Unless they've copied your work word-for-word, or you can reasonably prove that they wrote their version shortly after reading yours, and too much of theirs is the same to be coincidence, then it's going to be an unlikely venture. Somerset Maugham proved that coincidence has a wide girth. 

So, from that angle, I can appreciate why writers might prefer never to breathe a word of what they're writing, or planning to write. It seems that's the only true way to make sure nobody can nick your next novel.

As regular readers will know, I'm not so cautious. I freely share snippets of work in progress on my blog. I suppose I like to think that other people have enough imagination not to need to steal my ideas. If they don't have any imagination of their own, then any novel they manage to write faster than I can, using my ideas, is likely to result in something average enough to be unimpressive. I naively believe that an idea sparked blazes brighter than a wick lit from a secondary flame.

As authors, we're all magpies, but the skill lies in building a nest from your stolen booty.

If someone could take my idea and write it better - should I begrudge that?

As someone who has written two works based on other people's ideas (Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran (2015), Gaston Leroux and The Children of Lir (ETA 2016), an Irish legend translated by Lady Gregory), I feel a little uneasy about drawing a definitive line. In both novels I've nicked somebody else's characters and plots, and in Children of Lir, I've even directly quoted dialogue from an existing work.

Both of those works are long out of copyright, and I feel that by adapting them I've truly added something to the world - to literature. But what might I write if I could plunge into the pool of all ideas, all conversations, all characters?

Art is a difficult creature. All artists, in whatever medium (music, paint, poetry, song, dance) develop and learn through imitation. We even have a word for it - pastiche. Artists often begin by attempting to emulate other artists they love - working out what makes that style or delivery so effective - then attempting to surpass it in their own voice.

The application of copyright - something coldly logical - to an arena that is naturally playful, becomes restrictive.

I'd like to leave off on a TED talk by Johanna Blakley. Although she's focused on the fashion industry, what she's talking about is extremely interesting. She poses the argument that industries without copyright are not only more creative, but make better economic sense. Could that ever work for literature? 

[UPDATE: For more on the copyright issue, and discussions with book pirates, check out my post Downloading #bookz]

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