A Copyrighting Journey in Two Parts (Plus Cats)

you know you want to
you know you want to

Young Katie: Pro-Copyright

When I was fourteen-years-old and working on my first “novel” (a fantasy book written in a series of notebooks, usually during classes I didn’t like), my programmer-brother showed me how he could download free books on his TI-89 calculator to read during class. This was 1999; there were no e-readers. My brother was really into Linux and open source software and stuff like that. After gushing for a while about these free books, he asked me if I would ever consider publishing my book online for people to access for free: “So many people would read it, Katie! Plus you’re supporting information-sharing!”

He was completely baffled at my refusal to even consider this option. “How will I make money off of it if I make it available? I want to be a writer for my career, so I’ll need to make money in order to survive. Plus, people will steal my work and make money off of it by publishing it as their own,” I argued vehemently.

don't steal from me, you dirty Americans
don’t steal from me, you dirty Americans

Charles Dickens, my first Victorian love, was also really concerned about ownership and the property of one’s work. His travelogue American Notes and novel Martin Chuzzlewit both vehemently attack the US for various reasons, but one of them was due to the really lax copyright laws over books which led to all of his being pirated all over the place. Dickens was concerned both because writing was his way of life and because the pirated editions often twisted things in a way that he wasn’t comfortable (if Dickens loved anything, it was control).

Now-Katie: Anti(ish)-Copyright

But fast-forward to four years ago. My fantasy novel career ended in high school, when I became a more serious writer (and then got writer’s bloc and couldn’t write worth anything). I was an office staff person in a philosophy department and insanely bored most of the time (excepting certain seasons when I got to advise students or build the course schedule).

Due to this boredom coupled with a desire to be helpful, I created a fun blog for non-philosophers about how to understand philosophers. After all, I married a philosopher and worked with philosophers all the time, so why not use my observations to help others? The blog exploded with readers, and suddenly I was beset on all sides with emails (asking ME for advice), angry comments from philosophers who were under the impression that they were special snowflakes, and discussion in the comments sections of each entry. I kept my name off of things, and I tried to make it easy for others to use my blog posts in other things (papers, blog posts, emails; whatever they wanted).

That said, my opinion about copyright law has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years. I went from being adamantly for it to slightly-adamantly against it. Lessig discusses this phenomenon in his chapter “Cultures Compared” in Remix. Lessig quotes Victor Stone’s (of ccMixter) comments to him, which I am going to reproduce here: “You know … this discussion will be over in ten or twenty years. As the boomers die out, and they get over themselves by dying, the generation that follows … just doesn’t care about this discussion, and it’s part of the process and that’s it” (97).

I just want everyone to use my material and alter my material and add their own material. I wonder, though, if I also think this way because I am a liberal-liberal (non-democrat liberal). My value system is such that openness and sharing with others—without expecting payouts—is a really great thing. I have several friends who are still very pro-copyright (and very conservative), so I’m not sure that Lessig is completely correct in that my generation will be cool with less control. I am pretty sure that most of my pro-copyright writing friends* (none of who have actually published anything) are also deluding themselves into believing that they will be able to make a living by writing.

Of course, they also won’t be able to make a living by writing because there are people like me who want to constantly undermine the system with my free-words-for-everyone approach.

It’s not for everyone, though. I’m not sure it’s even a good system. What do you think? Do you have any good arguments for the copyrighting of writing?

P.S. Apologies for anyone who was looking for substantive material in my blog post and stumbled into “Katie’s reflections on her ideology of copyrighting journey.” It happens.

*This is excluding Janel. I’m thinking of my college friends who aren’t close to getting anything published for many reasons (vision, for one).


15 thoughts on “A Copyrighting Journey in Two Parts (Plus Cats)”

  1. Katie,

    I’m so glad that you brought up this topic because I kept running into copyright issues as I tried to finalize media for my own blog post. I spent over two hours tinkering with GarageBand and iMovie to create a 1:45 clip of music to showcase one of my favorite Katy Perry remixes. I juxtaposed it with the same section from the original song (“The One That Got Away”) and tried to upload it to both YouTube and SoundCloud, only for it to be blocked immediately because their servers recognized the copyrighted material.

    Now, maybe this is just me, but clearly I was not using that copyrighted material maliciously. Yes, I was using it for “profit,” but that profit was intellectual/educational, not financial. Besides, I’m pretty sure most of us know how I’m willing to spend tons of money to support the artists I thoroughly enjoy.

    So yeah, one of my biggest issues with copyright is that it severely limits what we can use in an academic context, and that’s what concerns me the most.

  2. I’m all about FIGHT THE PUBLISHER POWER, particularly when Fox Searchlight pulls fro Youtube all the clips from the film Thank You For Smoking that I use to teach rhetorical analysis. Even though I’ve written and published stuff before (not much or as widely or as profitably as Janel, who needs to tell me how she did that), I’ve found that like teen-Katie to now-Katie, I’ve become less and less concerned with textual ownership. I considered releasing my near-finished detective novel as a wiki. Plus, authors like Doctorow and Stross are all about “you guys can just have it and enjoy my story, or buy a conveniently bound copy for money, whatevs” mode of authorship, and they make plenty of money just by being prolific, inspiring enthusiastic fans, and writing neat stories. I mean, seriously, I just want to tell stories. If this was a profit-venture, I’d probably switch to something more efficient. So I think there are a surprising number of people who would side with you.

    Besides Lessig’s boomer argument, I think there’s something else culturally going on too (cue Michael’s Speculative Tendency). As the written text art object becomes more and more freely available, the marketable value will shift from the object to the novelty of that object (it’s already halfway in-between), meaning I think under your system people will gladly pay for texts that they like. See: kickstarter.

    It’s just that we tend fall in love with the idea of writing something FANTASTIC and then selling ALL THE COPIES and living on a private island. Except we’re rapidly entering a world where the copies are infinite and the islands will probably be underwater anyway.

    1. Michael, I really like your point that, “As the written text art object becomes more and more freely available, the marketable value will shift from the object to the novelty of that object…”

      This is something I struggle with each time I walk into Barnes and Noble. I readily admit that I’m easy to please when it comes to the types of literature I legitimately ENJOY, but it irks me that B&N, as per the specific book publishers’ price points, charges so much for a new hardback book, which I end up buying because the cover jacket looks and sounds like something I’d like, only to read it and find that it was shit and nowhere near worth almost 30 bucks.

      So, I’m not trying to bring in the quality control brigade and set parameters for “good” and “bad” literature; I just think the texts themselves, in unbound form, should be more readily and cheaply available—or I should at least have the option of negotiating price with B&N. Whichever works.

    2. Michael, You can cue “Michael’s Speculative Tendency” on my blog posts as much as you want, because most of my posts are really just “Katie’s Speculative Tendencies + Cats.” Also, Kickstarter was a great example of something that works (also, I’m reminded of the examples, which Chris can speak to better, when sometimes bands release free songs or albums with an option to pay and then fans end up paying for the music anyway because they want to support the artists).

      1. It’s not just music and text either–games and small films have taken aggressively to these models, particularly with products that are too unconventional, high risk, or retro for major publishing gatekeepers. Several have garnered frankly incredible support (see, for a dorky example, Star Citizen–a game in a nigh-extinct genre being resuscitated by a retired idea-man got tens of millions in support from people who like that stuff.)

  3. Chris & Michael:

    This question of the shifting value of written text objects–books, novels, poetry, etc.–is really interesting to me. In my senior year of undergrad, I took a large creative writing seminar to finish up my minor, and one of the things my professor had us do was create presentations of certain aspects of creative writing. One of the most compelling presentations was on self-publishing and its increase in recent years now that digital technology has made it so easy–it costs nothing to set up an Amazon author account and you can choose whether to make your work available for free or for a sum of money (although if you do monetize it, I think that Amazon receives a certain percentage of the profit).

    I think we also see this at work when it comes to e-books and e-texts. Via the Kindle app, I’ve done a lot of searching for free e-texts and, as opposed to not finding anything, I’ve found way, way too much, with a large range of quality and genre. It almost seems like an impossible task to go through the lists of e-texts and try to organize them by what appears to be worthwhile (to me, anyway) and what seems less worth it. It makes me wonder, without reading the overall value of a text into the price, what other visible markers of value do we have?

    1. Callie,

      This is something that I didn’t consider, but my inclination is to say that the phrase “visible markers of value” is fraught in itself. Most of the things that I read are books or articles that other people recommend to me (by word of mouth and through reviews on media sources I like), thus I trust them because they come from a source that I trust (I rarely wander through a bookstore and buy a book that I haven’t heard something about, because I’ve done this before with bad results). I mean, there are already too many choices physically, so I’m not sure how making a text free and digital really changes this problem.

    2. Callie,

      This also makes me think too of the recent push Amazon is making to legitimize and sell fanfiction through “Kindle Worlds.” Basically, Amazon secured licenses to several shows, and fans can post fanfiction through Amazon in the hopes to generate royalties for themselves, the shows, and Amazon. I don’t think that this particular aspect of the site is taking off (and I don’t want it to), but there’s an interesting trend as businesses look for ways to profit off “officially-licensed” remixes instead of pushing copyright suits.

      Though, I think they mostly don’t sue because they realized that it is certainly a losing battle when any fandom has thousands (tens of thousands…hundreds of thousands…) of fics across the internet. You can’t sue everybody.

  4. Katie,

    Here’s what I think about copyright and my own work: “For the moment I am grateful to be making a living and so must ask for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don’t plunder my editions; do plunder my visions. . . You,reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you.” Well, actually, that’s what Jonathan Lethem thinks, in his magnificent plagiarized essay, The Ecstasy of Influence . But I think it, too.


  5. Very thought-provoking! I don’t really have an opinion on copyright as of yet, but my thoughts are this:

    Besides the fact that some people (no matter how small a number) do depend on their writing to survive, how difficult is it really to just toss in a citation or acknowledgement if you want to use someone else’s work? I do have a lot of issues with the current systems of citation, but that’s beside the point. If someone is serious about formally publishing or releasing something that uses others’ work, why shouldn’t he or she take the time to briefly acknowledge that it’s an idea that belongs to someone else? It just seems like basic respect for that other individual and their hard work.

    That being said, I am all for overhauling the system so that people don’t have to wait millenia to get permission from publishers or companies to use something. That’s entirely counterproductive to everyone, and it’s a waste of time and money.

  6. I guess I’m experiencing some cognitive dissonance. This dissonance is arising from two truths I endorse: writers should be paid for their writing, and readers should have free or very cheap access to what they want to read (view/hear).

    For 8 years I made a living as a writer. Magazines, webpages, and companies paid me money for the work I did for them. It took me time, it required hard work (as we all know, writing isn’t the easiest task in the world!), and doing it well meant that I didn’t have time for other things. I did it part time and it enabled me to stay home with my children (Evelyn was only 4 months old when I landed my first freelance writing gig; Beatrice was born 18 months later, then Char 10 months after that). It was great.

    But I want to be clear that I didn’t write because I loved writing. It wasn’t from an artistic or altruistic compulsion. I wrote to support my family. James was working toward his PhD (with an even lower stipend then we currently get in English). We had two small children and a mortgage to pay.

    So here’s the problem: if intellectual work doesn’t have constraints about how it can be used, if there aren’t paywalls or sticker prices, how will writers (and editors, and copyeditors, and proofreaders, and layout people, etc.) be paid? If everything is all access all the time no holds barred, how does that work financially?

    In theory, I love for things to be accessible and open source. When I run into a paywall trying to get to an article or photograph or video, I’m peeved. But it’s not free to create content, and I have a hard time figuring out a way around the fact that the materials we love to read, hear, and view aren’t, in fact, free to create or free to sustain.

    1. Janel,

      One thought I had (in answer to your question: how does this work financially?) is making a distinction to one of my ideas that I ran together (but your question is pointing out). I run together the idea of payment for writing and copyrighting. Copyrighting concerns the ownership of the work (and things like the ability to republish or do with a work what you want), but it seems that getting paid for writing is a different issue.

      I would argue that one could get paid for writing work without copyrighting paying much of a role. For example, one might freelance for a public relations firm and create internal communications or letters to donors and get paid for doing so (we just heard a Moira Owens tell us all about this kind of work at ECF on Monday).

      I think your hesitancy here is exposing a tension that I just didn’t want to handle: does removing intellectual copyrighting (or reducing it) mean that the good people–the ones who write for a living–lose out in the end? I’m not sure that they do, but I guess I can’t make this claim too strong because we haven’t seen a system that does things this way.

  7. I find Janel’s reply to this post comprehensive enough , and I believe in both truths that she “endorses”.
    I have experienced studying in a decade when universities in my country could not, and cannot, provide students with easy access to many resources because of political conflicts. Due to political bans against the country online purchasing has been restricted and students are not able to do shopping even in Amazon, as their account might be blocked! Sometimes they have to pay a double or triple price to third parties who have intermediate agents in other countries to place an order for them.
    I think copyright in its giant sense should be respected and supported by authorities before individuals, as an example in UD’s library we have access to variety of resources without being worried about any rules as we all know that those rules have already been respected , somewhere,somehow. The majority of resources are provided for students, and paying for some resources occasionally seems more like a pleasure, the pleasure of shopping and owning, than a problem. But if we want to target individuals before looking at authorities, and ask them to stand in the frontier of Ardent Copyright Supporters, we should not expect to encounter brilliant outcomes. And as Lessing states, we should wait to criminalize the acts of all young generations .

  8. Everyone seems to be leaving long comments of their opinion, I just wanted to say ‘nice post’. It’s nice to see someone thinking rather than spouting (that’d be the philosophy, I suppose). Is your teenage novel available online?

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