13 February 2010

Copyright and greed

Let me say first off that I am not a copyright lawyer and don't fully understand all the complexities of copyright law. Working from time to time as a freelance editor, I've come up against copyright issues and have spent some time, therefore, perusing the Copyright Council's wonderful website and reading their free fact sheets, and have once or twice spoken to their lawyers about some of the trickier aspects.

As a writer, I'm a great believer in copyright and the protection it gives me. I think if someone borrows something from someone else, they should get permission and perhaps pay for the privilege. As an editor, I have sometimes sent writers scurrying off for permission, or advised them to remove something that I think is an infringement. They are often astounded that I could think it so -- but it's only two lines of a poem. Yeah, I know, but it's not about quantity: it's about quality. About how much craft went into something. And if that something is a poem or a song, then it might be a lot of craft for a few words.

Copyright protects all of us. It means you can't just take my short story, put your name to it and publish it somewhere else. Think that kind of thing never happens? Think again. It does. (Well, I haven't heard of it with short stories, but I have heard of a poet in the US who fortuitously discovered some of their poems published by someone else; I also know of a rather notorious Australian writer who plagiarised someone else's whole article and put their name to it and got caught out. Astounding, isn't it? Why would you do it?) It also means that you can't take that page I've reworked several times and drop it into your story without my permission. I may choose to grant you permission or I may decline. It's entirely up to me.

Having said that I've also heard of writers who've applied for permission and been asked an astonishing amount of money. Several hundred pounds for the reproduction of a couple of lines, for example. The writer decided not to use them. The owners were within their rights -- but, really, does that sound fair? It sounds somewhat excessive to me.

So, what has set me on this train of thought is the copyright battle that has been playing out in the music industry. Men at Work and their iconic song, and that other iconic Australian song "Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree". I'm not going to comment on whether or not I think there was a case to answer to because my opinion is irrelevant and in any case a judge has made a decision. What I am astounded by (all right, I've used that word already, so let me say appalled by) is the amount of money that the plaintiff's have been demanding. One newspaper reported it as sixty per cent of the profits. Sixty per cent! The more the better, I read that their lawyers had said. Is that attitude really about fairness or about greed? (Yeah, I know. Wake up and face the real world! The real world runs off greed. And some professions seem to embrace it more than others.)

Part of deciding whether copyright has been breached includes an assessment of how much work went into the original -- perhaps part of the consideration of recompense for a breach should include an assessment of what percentage the infringement makes up of the new work it appears in. I'll be waiting with interest to see what amount is awarded. I hope I'm not astonished.

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