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Blame the Creator, not the Laws!

Max Berry on unending copyright:

A century-long copyright (in the UK), or a lifetime plus seventy years (in the US) means books, songs, and films created before you were born will still be locked up when you die. During your life, you will see no new versions, no reworkings, reinterpretations, remixes, or indeed any copies at all, unless they are approved by whoever happened to inherit the original artists estate, or whichever company bought it.

Media companies are quick to throw around the word thief whenever a teenager burns a CD or shares a file over the internet. But this is theft, too, when an artists work is kept away from the public for a century. Ten years is incentive. A hundred years is gluttony.

Max is preaching to the converted here. But let’s put your money where your mouth is. Surely Barry is aware of the hypocrisy of publishing a book with Random House and then complaining about the length of corporate ownership of copyrights. His solution: more enlightened laws. My solution: more enlightened content creators.

Ultimately, authors bear responsibility for their own copyright terms. Authors can easily stick Founder’s copyright or creative commons licenses on their works. And authors can easily walk away from publishing deals that grant corporations unreasonable periods of copyright control (and the power to sue people who create derivative works from them). Ultimately, the power lies with the creator; blaming the problem on an odious law or an industry is a mistake.

Over the last year I’ve come to the conclusion that copyright is for the most part irrelevant to content creators (See my posts Artists No Longer Need Copyright). In part this belief is colored by my creative medium (text, mostly) and the technologies of the time period. Now we have the consequences of trying to commodify artistic creations: it turns them into business properties with all the attendant legal protections.

But what happens if the individual can sell creative works from his or her own website? (In this case, you can’t accuse an intermediary of taking the creator’s profits away).

What happens if payment is optional? (That turns payments into a show of support rather than a payment for a service).

So far the do-it-yourself solutions haven’t fared well, although as I’ve stated many times, it may have more to do with people’s habits than anything else. Creators deal with megamedia companies because of their massive publicity engines. Truthfully, if a big publisher offered $5,000 for total rights over one of my projects, I’d be half-inclined to accept simply for the publicity possibilities.

Seriously, though, my life is easier (albeit poorer) now that all my fiction is equipped with creative commons licenses. The challenges are completely different. Instead of spending all my time trying to persuade an editor or agent to pay attention to my fiction, I can concentrate on making it shine and making it easier for future audiences to find. Previously the author/publisher relationship was clearly defined; basically the author threw something over the fence and hoped that a publisher would be there to catch it. Once over the fence, the author trusted that the publisher would do a good job at promoting the work. (Sure the author would be available for book tours and interviews, but only at the publisher’s expense). The possibility of ebooks to disrupt publishing makes the path to success less clear, while offering more methods to make one’s creative content known. For example, it turns the focus from bookstores to the web; a paypal link or shopping cart link is always a click away. Suddenly tasks like finding an agent seem less important and fostering web relationships and affiliations become more important.

We have two separate issues here: what to do about art inside the copyright vaults and how artists today can distribute their artistic works and find some sort of reward. I am pessimistic about the first issue and optimistic about the second. If the copyright fiasco has taught us anything, it’s that artists need to be more diligent about letting third parties control the rights to works they created for posterity.

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