Copyright

If you really want me to think you’ve got the brain wattage of a garden snake, all you have to do is suggest that there’s something wrong with the concept of copyright. This is not the same thing as saying that there’s something wrong with the current execution of the copyright law in the United States. It is, indeed, totally out of control at the moment and needs to be hauled back in no matter how badly Disney wants the public to keep its grimy paws off Steamboat Willie. That is an entirely separate discussion.

No, what I’m talking about is the basic concept that if I write (or otherwise intellectually create) something, I own it, unless I choose to sell it. For some reason, there are a number of people who seem to think this is a purely evil thing. These people may not actually be idiots, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that fact from this opinion.

I blame the RIAA, personally. Its general holy war against people listening to music except exactly in the way it wants them to has made people defensive and edgy and apparently given rise to the fallacious belief that copyrights are owned only by short, hairy, coke-snorting music label chiefs who are married to porn stars and/or Mariah Carey. And it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them. But in fact the vast majority of copyrights are owned by simple folk, like, say, me. And while I am indeed short, I am not notably hairy, coked-up or married to a porn star. Please don’t steal from me.

There are other misconceptions regarding the basic idea of copyright, largely from people who don’t actually have to rely on the protections copyright provide them in order to pay their mortgages. While one can chalk up many of these misconceptions to simple ignorance about copyright law (which is fair enough), some people are aggressively obnoxious about the idea that copyrights are evil and wrong.

This particular spasm of copyright irritation comes from a Metafilter discussion of a radio talk show host ripping off the work of a writer on the Web, in which one commenter offered up this particularly beef-witted exhalation:

“What the hell is the problem with somebody appropriating a few words you dreamed up one day? …Given current broken copyright laws, you’re within your rights to be selfish about it, but sharing is a good thing. We need more, not less.”

Which is indeed a fine position to have on copyrights when you don’t have to make your living with them. This fellow’s position as far as I could tell was based both on extreme ignorance about how writers can eke the very last penny out of everything they write — he seemed to be under the impression that once something was written and paid for once, its economic value was spent (which would come as a complete surprise to all those writers cashing in reprint checks) — and a rather strange assumption that writers should be thrilled just to have their ideas carried forward by others, even if (as in this case) those ideas were posted by someone else without attribution, without payment, and tampered with in a way that compromised the original message of the text.

Obviously, he’s wrong. Professional writers do indeed like people passing along our ideas — under our terms. If we put those ideas out there freely, for anyone to read without cost (as I do here), that’s our decision. If we put those ideas out there for you read only if you or someone else pays for them first (as I do when I put out books or magazine articles), that’s our decision, too. Copyright allows the author (or any other creator) pretty much total freedom in presenting the terms of displaying and sharing his or her work.

This is why, anecdotally, I find things like “copyleft” and “creative common licenses” puzzling and superfluous, since they don’t provide anything you can’t already do under copyright (and indeed, they work, if they work at all, because underlying copyright protections are there). To go further, I find “copyleft” and “creative common licenses” confuse the issue, since they implicitly cater to the idea that “copyright” is bad, which leads to the asshattery exhibited by the commenter above. I don’t do copyleft; I don’t do creative commons. I do copyright. It’s all a boy needs.

I realize that in discussing copyright I come off like one of the more annoying characters in an Ayn Rand novel, but damn it (and trust me, you’re not going to hear me say this often) this is one point where Rand is right: It’s my work, and my words. You can’t get them unless I decide I want to provide them to you (you may decide you don’t want them, but that’s another matter entirely). The fact that I own what I say gives me the room to say what I want, when I want to say it. If someone takes my words and steals them or twists them, I have a way to protect myself and my work. It’s important to me.

As a practical matter, I tend to be very loose regarding my copyrights — the Web is dotted with pages where people have cut and pasted my work onto their own site, and by and large, I say, have fun, kids. Overall it’s usually a net benefit to me to have my stuff all over the place, and in a decade on the Internet, I’ve only known of one time where someone presented my words as his. He was quickly slammed for it by someone else who knew where the writing had come from — it’s the fabled self-correcting behavior of the Internet. But as an intellectual matter, I’m very fierce about my copyrights. The fact that I’m the latter allows me to feel comfortable with the former.

If you want to fix copyright to make it more fair to the public, I’m with you (my personal feeling is that copyright should be for the natural life of the creator or 25 years (whichever is longer) in the case of live humans, and for about 75 years in the case of corporations). But if you want to “fix” copyright by restricting the ability of the creator to say what can be done with his or her work right from the beginning, I’m afraid I’m going to think there’s something deeply wrong with your brain that you could put forward such a spectacularly stupid opinion.