Editorial by John Dougherty
Who would have thought that copyright would be one of the issues of this year’s election in the UK?
Not one of the major issues, obviously; not one of the really important issues like how best to eat a bacon sandwich, or whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to help make the laws or should just sit at the back doing raffia. But amid all the high-level politicking, someone noticed that the Green Party website expressed an apparent desire to reduce copyright to a period of 14 years.
Obviously, some people got cross. Some other people, however, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They started saying things like, it was an initiative to get copyright owned by artists and writers, not companies; that the idea is to support arts; that it is in all of our best interests to have a vast public domain; that no one needs decades of monopoly; that if you write a book and after 14 years you haven’t made enough money, maybe you should write another book.
Much of this demonstrates a real misunderstanding not just about the working life of the average writer, but also about the basic principle of copyright, which is this:
If I make something, it belongs to me.
This applies whether it’s a song, a story, a poem, or a cake. I suggested this to someone on Twitter, who replied, I give cakes away. And you know what? That’s fine. If you make a cake, and you want to give it away, you can. You can give it all to your friends, or you can put it on the wall outside your house with a note saying “Help yourself,” or you can throw it at the seagulls. That’s fine. It’s your cake.
Similarly, if you want to sell it, that’s up to you. You can set up a cake-stall and sell it slice by slice; you can put it on eBay; you can sell the whole thing to someone who forgot to bake a birthday cake, or who’s having guests round for tea and hasn’t been to the shops, or who has a cake-reselling business, or who just likes cake. Or you can ask the cake-shop down the road to sell it for you at an agreed commission. That’s fine. It’s your cake.
And if you want, you can leave it on the kitchen table till it goes stale and moldy. You can hang it from a tree and throw apples at it. You can put it in the bath. You can bury it in the garden. You can do any of these things, because it’s your cake. Whatever you want to do with it, that’s fine.
What’s not fine is for someone else to decide that it shouldn’t be your cake, and help themselves without your permission.
It doesn’t matter why they don’t think it should be yours. They can argue that you’ve got more than enough cake; they can argue that you wouldn’t have been able to make the cake if someone else hadn’t produced the flour & eggs & sugar; they can argue that cake should be for everybody. They can argue that the big corporations make too much money out of cake; or that wider distribution of cake benefits society; or that if you haven’t got enough cake then maybe you should make some more; or simply that they really really like cake. Some of these may be true, but none of them is relevant. Because it’s your cake.
Nobody’s been able to explain to me why a story or a song should be any different in this regard than a cake — or a business, to use another comparison. If someone builds a business up and then hands over the day-to-day running to an employee, would we say that after 14 years she should lose her rights either to profit from the company or to control its direction? I don’t think we would. If someone builds a house and then rents it out, would we say that after 14 years of not living in the house he should lose his rights of ownership? Again, I doubt it.
When you strip away the sound and fury, most of the arguments for reducing copyright seem to boil down to one of two:
- I want free stuff.
- The internet has made it easier for people to steal stuff.
We wouldn’t accept either of these as a good reason for removing other property rights. I don’t see why intellectual property should be any different.
John Dougherty latest book is the extremely silly Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Evilness of Pizza, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP. Read more of his thoughts on books and publishing at “An Awfully Big Blog Adventure,” a blog site for a group of children’s book authors from the UK and Ireland.