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Copyright Infringement: A Question of Give and Take
by Moira Allen
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You're having a picnic in a park. Perhaps you're alone, perhaps you're with a friend, perhaps you're with your best beloved, perhaps you're with your kids. You've spent hours preparing a lavish, delectable feast. Proudly displayed on the cloth-covered picnic table is a platter of home-baked chocolate chip cookies, still warm and so bursting with chocolate that they're more chip than cookie.
A small child approaches the table, eyes fixed upon that tempting platter. Those cookies look sooo good. Finally the child builds up courage, looks up at you, and says, "Those sure do look awfully good... Could I have just one?"
Before we imagine any further, let me hasten to assure you that this is not some sort of "no-win" dilemma. You've got lots of cookies, more than enough to feed everyone in your party and probably three or four other parties of picnickers. It's not a question of "Oh, gosh, if I give this charming child a cookie, my own kids will go hungry." So... what do you do?
I'm betting that most of my readers will happily agree to give the child at least one cookie -- and perhaps even a handful to take back to his or her siblings. And in doing so, you'll feel just about as warm and gooey inside as those cookies. You'll smile as the child dashes off, chomping down on one treat whilst waving the others excitedly.
OK, now imagine a slight change to this scenario. A small child approaches your table, stares at the cookies -- and suddenly snatches a double handful and runs off before you can even say "Boo!"
How do you feel now?
I'm betting not so warm and gooey.
One might argue that the outcome is the same: small child gets cookies, and you still have enough left for your own party. But the emotional outcome is very different. Instead of feeling warm and happy and pleased for the child, you feel angry, violated, and probably wishing the child would trip over a tree-root in his flight and lose the cookies to a horde of vicious ducks. Why? Because you don't feel particularly good about the child any longer. The child is no longer a charming stranger who has approached you politely and given you a chance to make someone's day. He is now a thief, someone who has invaded your space, stolen your property, and ruined your day. It's not the cookies, it's the issue of taking rather than giving.
By now you're probably wondering what this scenario is doing in an editorial on writing. Well, I'm sorry to say it's here because, amongst our readers, we do have the equivalent of that second child. The one who grabs the cookies and runs. I know you are there, I know you are a reader, I know you are undoubtedly an aspiring writer (because, after all, you read this newsletter and you are a member of a local writers' group), and... you are a thief.
I suspect you don't think of yourself as such. When you read about the snatch-and-grab kid at the picnic, I'm sure you didn't think, "Yep, that's me!" I think, in fact, that unlike the child at my imaginary picnic, you truly did have "good motives." You thought you were helping fellow writers; it never occurred to you (I hope!) that you were, at the same time, robbing other fellow writers.
You are the reader who passed along Michele Deppe's article on fantasy and science fiction, and Victoria Grossack's fiction column, for publication in your writing group's newsletter, without bothering to say "please." It probably seemed like a small thing to you -- hardly bigger than a cookie. But it's not a small thing.
Michele and Victoria expect, quite rightly, to be paid for their work. They are professional writers, trying to make their living from their words, just as a baker might try to make a living from making the best possible chocolate chip cookies. Yet, oddly, while most of us wouldn't dream of going into a bakery and stealing cookies, which probably sell for less than $5 apiece, there are some who don't think twice about stealing an article worth $100 or more.
Copyright infringement, of course, has been with us long before the Internet -- but there is a culture on the Internet that not only makes it easier, but actively encourages such behavior. There's plenty of folks who believe that all "information" ought to be "free" -- which basically means, "I shouldn't have to pay for it." Again, people who wouldn't dream of stealing a cookie from a baker, who wouldn't expect for a moment that their mechanic would fix their car for free, who couldn't even imagine breaking into someone's home, see nothing wrong with stealing the work of someone's mind. Perhaps it is because words do not have "substance" -- but that doesn't mean they don't have value. A cookie will be gone in the blink of an eye, and forgotten in an hour; words can endure and inspire for centuries.
Copyright exists for a very simply, economic (yes, commercial) reason: Its founders recognized that people who have the talent to create works of art, literature, music, and performance will only be able to do so if they can afford to do so. Copyright law exists to protect intellectual property not so that authors can get filthy rich -- and I feel compelled to point out that very, very few authors ever actually do. It exists so that authors and artists can survive on the fruits of their labor, just as auto mechanics and bakers and shoemakers survive on the fruits of their labors.
Think for a moment about the novels of your favorite author. How many are there? Five? Ten? Twenty? Agatha Christie wrote 66 detective novels, amongst numerous other works. The world would be a much poorer place (at least for mystery lovers) if she'd only been able to afford to write, say, ten. You'd be a lot less happy, I suspect, if your favorite author couldn't afford to write any longer because the "information wants to be free" (again, translated as the "I don't feel I ought to have to pay for this myself") crowd wins the day.
Whoever you are, I suspect that while you're an aspiring writer, you're not yet a full-time freelancer, trying to support yourself and your family on the words that flow from your pen. When that day comes, and I sincerely hope that it does, I suspect that you will be every bit as unhappy with people who take your work without permission or payment, and use it for their own advantage, as we are with you.
But here's the irony. Let's go back to that first scenario, where the child asked for a cookie and got one, or perhaps half a dozen to go. In many, if not most, cases, if you actually bother to ask for permission, you're going to get it. Most of our contributors are happy to help out other writers, and writing groups. The difference, as with the cookies, is not the ultimate outcome; it's the process.
I'm old-fashioned enough to believe the process -- the social interactions through which the child gets the cookie and the newsletter gets the article -- are still important. Here's the thing: If you ask my permission to use a piece, and I say yes, you've just built a relationship. If you take without asking, you've destroyed a relationship. Quite probably, all things considered, you're a fine writer and a deserving person, one who wants to help others, one who is trying to "do your bit" to support the writing community. But when you take from that community, all those other qualities never get a chance to shine.
So think about what might actually be the best way to "do your bit." Here's my suggestion: Don't build resentments, build relationships. As a writer, you have many unique, wonderful opportunities. Don't throw them away!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.