Creativity and the Law

14 May 2009 in Future of Publishing

Last night I was on a panel for Birkbeck Arts Week, ‘Creativity and the Law’, with Anthony Julius and Lisa Appignanesi. It was exciting and daunting to be on a panel with such luminaries; Anthony Julius is a pre-eminent lawyer and writer and general all round very-smart-person, and Lisa A is hugely knowledgable about freedom of expression here in the UK through her work for PEN.

I kicked off the discussion (wanted to go first as was afraid that if I had to speak after either of them I’d feel even more foolish than normal) by talking a bit about my on-going confusion and consternation regarding issues around Copyright and Intellectual Property in the digital age - essentially, how to make a living from producing content in a world where content is often free.  Here are the points I attempted to make:

1.  I believe in the utopian notion of the Universal Library ?? the internet as a vast repository of knowledge, open source, and freely available

2.  But I also worry that as my content is digitised and my work is made available across multiple platforms, not just fixed print type ?? something that, again, I’m hugely excited by and very involved with both thinking and experimenting with - it will become increasingly difficult for me to make a living from producing that content.

3.  I’m already hugely involved in giving away content for free ?? via this blog, but more fundamentally, via my digital fiction project, ‘Inanimate Alice’ ?? a project where, incidentally, I do not own the IP, and a project where, for the first time in my life, I’ve used a lawyer to draw up contracts instead of relying on those often rather quaint contracts used by agents and publishers.  It’s worth noting that with its huge readership of more than a million people, this work has had more readers than all my print publications combined.  It is privately financed, available for free.

4.  Many writers worry that digitising books will create a huge problem of piracy, illegal file-sharing, like what has happened in the music industry.

5.  Though my feeling is that, really, file-sharing of books has been with us already for decades - the secondhand book market, which when it comes to writers and remuneration, might as well be piracy. However, back to my first point, when it comes to the dissemenation of culture, and any notion of an open access, Universal Library, for those of us who read books, the secondhand book market is of huge value - to readers, but also to writers who buy secondhand books.

6.  Google Book Settlement ?? ploughing through the documentation and attempting to decide whether to opt in or opt out ?? in a way, GBS crystallises all the above arguments and puts them on the table:  Who will profit from my labour as a writer?  Google?  Or me?

7.  Lastly, in all these discussions of copyright and IP, etc., it’s worth noting that the duration of copyright after a writer’s death is getting longer and longer, and this is not something I’m happy about.  The truth is that I think that my copyright should cease when I die and my work, for what its worth, should enter the public domain at that point.

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