Copywrong, part 2

My last post about copyright / trademark law brought in a surprising amount of traffic.  It’s a complicated issue, and too often, people seem to think that copyright / trademark should be an All or Nothing affair.  Either you should own the rights to something you created forever.  Or you should never own them.  This is often the criticism thrown back at me when I suggest that copyright / trademark is too restrictive and encourages cultural stagnation.

“Don’t you make money off of your ideas thanks to copyright?” someone will inevitably ask.

Yes, I do.  And I think I should be able to.  I just don’t think copyright / trademark should be nearly as long as it is.  And I certainly think that after the original creator is long dead, it’s not unreasonable to allow intellectual property to hit the public domain.  In fact, I think it should be well before that point.  Twenty or thirty years after original publication, at most.  If an artist can’t create another successful idea / story / character in that space of time, I have a hard time being sympathetic.  Not because creativity is easy.  But because I don’t approve of the notion that someone can do something really well once (or get really lucky once) and then coast along for the rest of their life.

Anyway, it’s a false dilemma.  If J.K. Rowling lost the rights to Harry Potter right this moment, it’s not like she would go to the poor house.  She’s would still be obscenely wealthy.  Even if all her royalties stopped rolling in, she’d still be set for life.  As well as for the life of her children and grandchildren.

Granted, most creators are not as successful as Rowling.  But it’s my opinion that the artist should create, not just rest on their laurels.  If I were a file clerk, I couldn’t alphabetize all the information, reorganize it in a wonderful new system, and then just sit back and collect a paycheck for the rest of my life.  People might congratulate me on my great job and even give me a bonus if they were feeling especially generous.  But they wouldn’t sit around for the next thirty years telling me what a great job I did that one time and that I was a filing genius.

That said, I’m perfectly willing to accept lifetime copyright / trademark.  It might not be the best system, but no one can complain if someone profits from their creativity.  I’m even for copyright lasting a decade or two after the creator’s death, so that their family has a window to profit from it.  It seems a bit excessive to me, but not unreasonable.

But what I’m against is someone who is not the original creator, someone (or something) who owns a license, profiting from an idea that they had very little to do with.  Granted, this isn’t always clear cut.  Batman achieved part of his popularity in no small part to the efforts of DC Comics.  At the same time, the comic book company was mostly there as a distribution network, not as a creative element.  Comic book companies (and companies in general) are pretty lousy at creativity.  They tell stories that sell comics, not good stories.  They are beholden to their bottom line, and that’s nothing to be ashamed about, but it’s a lousy motivation for creativity.

But, and I really need to emphasis this again, copyright / trademark is important.  Done correctly, it rewards creativity and artistic expression and encourages more of it.  Done incorrectly, all it does is discourage those things.

If I can allow myself to be a pretentious artist for a bit (if I haven’t already been too much of one at this point), art should be about more than making money.  Most art anyway.  I have no problem with a bit of soulless art, a little attempt to cash in.  I don’t care if someone wants to earn a few bucks by “selling out”.  But when even your cultural touchstones have sold out, where is there left to go?

We see it already in our culture.  It seems like more than ever, we have sequels and series and licensed properties.  And some people bemoan this, but the fact of the matter is that these things make money.  There’s no reason for a corporation to take a chance as long as their is more profit to be had in sticking to the same old thing.  If J.K. Rowling kept writing Harry Potter books, people would still buy them.  At this stage, it wouldn’t even matter much about the quality because it’s a habit.  And I have little doubt that the publisher would be very happy with this.  It is Rowling herself who has decided there is a limit to the number of stories she can tell about Harry and his universe.

For me, the worst idea is the notion the “constant reader”, that fan who consumes without question, who willingly surrenders their own judgment.  Not that I expect my fans to turn their backs on me if they read a book they don’t like.  But three or four books they don’t like?  That’s different.  And I’d hate for someone to buy any books (mine included) out of a strange sense of obligation rather than because they think they’ll enjoy it.

When I was a steady comic book purchaser, I used to see folks who would buy any comic with Character X on its cover or written by Writer Y.  There was nothing wrong with that, but often, I’d see a dissatisfied customer come back.  They might love Character X, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to love everything with him / her in it.  And even though you might love a writer most of the time, sometimes, they aren’t just going to do it for you.

Yes, even me.  I admit it.  It’s fine with me if you like some of my books more than others.  Heck, if you end up hating one, I can’t hold it against you.  And while I’d like to think one bad story wouldn’t put a reader off of my work, I would also like to hope that if you’ve read every book I’ve written and hated all of them that you would be smart enough to stop torturing yourself out of some misguided hope that I’m going to win you over.  (Although if you want to keep buying them and hating them, I can live with it.)

It’s easy to blame the corporation or the customer or anyone and everyone.  But it’s a complicated problem.  Consumers often like the same ol’ thing.  It’s okay to admit that.  Corporations like money.  It’s okay to admit that too.  And if these are only your concerns, then there’s nothing wrong with copyright / trademark as it stands.

But I like creativity.  I like encouraging it.  A world where everything is a sequel, where we re-release films in repackaged form because it’s easier and safer than trying something different, that world bothers me.  It’s a world without discovery, a place where finding something new and unexpected is harder and harder.

And that world is a sadder place.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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