Copyright kills

Copyright kills innovation (via No Rock And Roll Fun). During my masters in 2005, we had a tutorial about digital publishing and one of the texts for the class was this 1999 article by John Sutherland. After some descriptions of sharp practice by academic publishers, Sutherland gets down to the meat of what’s bothering him: the LRB, the TLS and the Guardian have all started republishing his work digitally, without paying a further fee. I don’t remember there being much sympathy for Sutherland among the aspiring young academics in the room. For one thing, I think most of us would have accepted publication on much worse terms than Sutherland was getting, and happily. For another, Sutherland’s distinction between the online and paper versions of a journal seemed absurd: the Guardian is the Guardian, whether it’s published in paper and ink or zeroes and ones. And lastly, I thought at the time of the seminar that there was something rather greedy about expecting to be paid in perpetuity for any piece of work. Sutherland’s final flourish in the article felt unearned:

One has to weigh advantages. The growth of databases and electronic archives is something to be encouraged. On the other hand, it would be unnatural not to feel alarmed at the commercial stranglehold which their creation permits. […] Freelance authors, as the romantic name for them implies, are less constrained than employees. Subservience is as corrosive in journalism as it is in academic research. Freedoms of thought and expression are at risk. Is this a price worth paying for the new conveniences of knowledge?

As students, the benefits of accessible knowledge were pretty obvious to us; the dangers of John Sutherland feeling “subservient”, not so much. After all, if knowledge isn’t accessible, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is. And as someone now trying to make money from writing, I’m more frustrated by my work being held offline than I am by the idea that there are people reading my words for free: I want to be able to use earlier work to advertise myself for new jobs, and I can’t do that through a convenient website when the publisher owns the copyright. I’m not denying that there’s a case for copyright, but the difference between my feelings and those expressed by Sutherland is that I expect being a writer to involve, you know, writing – rather than ticking along on the royalties from past work.

4 thoughts on “Copyright kills

  1. It’s rather like repeat fees for actors. 100% first time something is shown, 80% the second time, 60% the third time perhaps?

    When I take an x-ray I get paid for that work, should I get paid the second time a medic looks at the image? and a third? Or maybe a plumber should be paid each time the loo he/she installed is flushed?

    Or maybe I have missed the point and am rambling on incoherently.

  2. That’s pretty much exactly how I feel about it. I still think it’s important for artists of various sorts to be able to stop misrepresentation, and there’s something deeply unfair about the idea that a publisher or record company might go on profiting by reproducing someone’s work without the artist seeing any of the money, but still: I don’t get why ‘creatives’ are a special class who deserve to be paid almost forever for a small portion of work, and other skilled workers get remunerated once and once only.

  3. I has annoyed me in the past to discover something I’ve written in past for PSM3 or some other magazine appear on the GamesRadar. Especially when it’s credited to ‘staff’. Mainly, though, because the money isn’t brilliant so seeing someone get a free use without asking feels like salt in the wound. It’s not so much about being paid more but being paid enough.

  4. Yeah, I was thinking I should have thought that the long-tail payments are compensation for the crappy rates writers/artists/musicians get at the beginning. Reprints across a publisher’s titles crosses a bit of a line for me too, though: it doesn’t feel the same as something appearing in the paper and digital version of one mag.

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