Neil Gaiman: Web piracy is good publicity

I have always wondered why people become so agitated about pirated music or movies but have no problem with lending books. Why is it “stealing” to listen to a song or watch a movie without paying but perfectly okay to borrow my books and read them without paying? We even use tax dollars — my tax dollars! — to support this scandalous book-lending via public libraries.

I understand the technical argument. Borrowing a book does not involve making an unlicensed copy of that book, the thing that copyright specifically forbids. But in the case of books, that is a distinction without a difference. One does not need to own a copy of a book to enjoy the full benefit of it; one only has to borrow it. That is because books most often are read only once then never again, at least not for several years. So possessing the book for a few days or weeks is as good as owning your own copy, unlike a song, which you will likely want to listen to over and over if you like it. Of course, this excludes the value of books as display objects — “books as furniture.” But then, the current frenzy about internet piracy is about illicit digital copies only, and you can’t very well display an MP3 file either.

I am not advocating for piracy and certainly not for closing the public libraries, only for keeping things in perspective. There has never been — and should never be — an ironclad rule of copyright that demands a payment for every single use of an artwork. It violates society’s interest in the free flow of ideas, yes, but, as Neil Gaiman points out, it is also not in the artist’s interest to have his every creation locked up out of sight behind a pay wall.


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Copyright Run Amok

Last week I reviewed the copy-edited manuscript of Defending Jacob, the last step before the manuscript is sent to the production department. Production will lay out the text in proper book format, a stage known as “galleys.” So copy editing is really the last chance to make changes before the book designers take over. It is about cleaning up details: grammar, typos, internal consistency (things like dates and characters’ names), and fact-checking. (Technically, you can still make changes after the book has gone to galleys, but it is more expensive. If the bill gets high enough, the standard Random House contract permits the publisher to ask the author to foot the bill himself.)

Copy editing is also the time when I make sure I have permission to use any copyrighted material that is quoted in my book. It is the author’s responsibility to secure reprint rights — and to pay for them.

In the case of Defending Jacob, there was one such quotation, which was used as an epigraph on a section title page. The quote was from H.G. Wells’s 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, which predicts events from 1933 through the end of the twentieth century. Here was the quote:

In 1900, a visitor from another sphere might reasonably have decided that man, as one met him in Europe or America, was a kindly, merciful and generous creature. In 1940 he might have decided, with an equal show of justice, that this creature was diabolically malignant. And yet it was the same creature, under different conditions of stress.

To use these three sentences, I had to determine, first, whether the book was still protected by copyright. If the copyright had expired, the book would be in the public domain and I could quote from it freely — freely in both senses.

No such luck. It turned out, The Shape of Things to Come was originally due to enter the public domain in the U.S. in 1989, but the copyright was extended for another 20 years in 1976 by the federal Copyright Act, then extended again for another 20 years by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. So The Shape of Things to Come — a book that has been out of print for years now — will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2028, 95 years after it was first published, 82 years after the author’s death. (A good summary of current copyright rules is here.)

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Lawrence Lessig on the Google book search settlement

Will Google Books, the audacious attempt to digitize every book ever written, have the perverse effect of making books — and ideas — less available, less ubiquitous, less free? Will copyright laws require that most of the books written in the last century be excluded from the new digital online library? Is this progress? This is Lawrence Lessig speaking at Harvard two weeks ago. Lessig’s presentation runs about 28 minutes followed by a 15-minute Q&A.

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