Pay writers, not banksters!

Attitudes towards copyright theft vary: some regard it as a victimless crime; some as no crime at all; others as something akin to serial murder. There is a solution to the problem, if our governments are brave enough to take it.

The Autumn 2011 issue of ALCS NEWS is a copyright special, most of the issue is devoted to explaining what wonderful people writers are: authors, novelists...journalists? Well, two out of three ain’t bad. One problem with copyright is everything we write, say or do is based at least in part on something someone has done before, ie we all stand on if not the shoulders of giants then in the footsteps of those who preceeded us. Another problem is that in this age of instant, dirt cheap at times free communications, it is dead.

A third, and undoubtedly the biggest perceived problem, is that everyone who publishes something expects, wants or at least likes, to be paid for bestowing an original work on the world, be it a prosaic news report, a novel or even a limerick. Many years ago I attended a meeting of the London Freelance Branch of the NUJ where one member complained about being ripped off. At this distance in time, the details elude me, but I recall she was indignant that an article she had written for a newspaper had ended up in a digital database and sold on or possibly even sydnicated with neither her consent nor her knowledge.

The punchline is that she, like everyone else nowadays, had no compunction at all about surfing the Internet, reading other people’s content, and no doubt listening to or even downloading music and other original works by authors, arrangers and performers who would likewise not have been paid, or paid insufficiently for their work.

ALCS NEWS begins with an allusion to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, next year, who was said to have been a passionate campaigner for copyright. It ends with an appeal to the young. While vested interested is entitled to proselytise as much as selflessness, the plain fact is that copyright can be enforced only extremely selectively, and us “little people” have virtually no redress if our works are ripped off, even if somebody makes a fortune out of it.

One example of this is the experience of photographer Andrew Besley. (Re this and this article generally, see also the article Copyright is dead...).

An interview with Robert Levine, a former executive editor with Billboard and the author of Free Ride..., gives it his best shot, but like ALCS he is swimming against the tide. There is though a way we can square the circle, or near enough.

Firstly, we should recognise the fact that literature, music, art, even news stories, constitute part of our common cultural inheritance, a term derived from the Social Credit philosophy of Major Douglas. While writers, composer and other literary creators should receive the recognition they deserve, the fruits of their labours belong to us all, in a sense.

If a man wants to write bawdy limericks for his own amusement, there is no reason he shouldn’t, but if he chooses to share them with even one other individual, then subject to such concepts as legal, professional privilege, he should have no redress if others publish his works to the world.

Just because a white man, an American, a Protestant, a retired librarian or whatever, invents a better mousetrap, doesn’t mean that he should be able to exercise control over it once he springs it on the world. We would rightly object if he insisted that only members of his particular church, clan or profession should be able to benefit from it.

Now, we can sit around all day, every day, draughting repressive laws, filing court cases for copyright, or we can take a more proactive measure.

Authors add to the common cultural inheritance, they also create wealth. Okay, a computer and Internet access can be expensive, but once you have acquired it, think how much you can both save and earn - earn by enriching your life, not by making money.

A first class stamp in Britain is currently 46p, which means that a company doing a ten thousand letter mailshot would run up a bill of perhaps five hundred pounds. Four or five such mailshots by e-mail and a half decent website, and look at the return and the saving.

Yet companies, especially music companies, film companies and major newspaper publishers complain that the Internet loses them money because once one copy has been made of a song, a film or newspaper, it is or can be in effect distributed to the whole world for free.

Recognition of authorship is and should always be the first reward anyone receives, but after that...

Although Paul McCartney is probably worth half a billion, most songwriters and performers don’t make anything like that in their lifetimes. Indeed, it is probably truer now than ever that the majority of writers, composers and other literary creators make precious little from their endeavours in real terms, if only because now thanks to the Internet anyone can do it, and everyone does.

Take a ramble through YouTube sometime and you will find professionally crafted plays and thrillers produced by ten year old kids with no adult assistance, while at the other end of the scale you will find some old codger with his guitar belting out original songs. Most of these creators will make nothing or next to nothing, but as soon as a novelist has his first work published, or a journalist has his first big scoop, suddenly he has to be paid pro rata for everything.

The Internet may just be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it is also the great leveller.

[The above op-ed was first published November 13, 2011 (UK time).]

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