Siva Vaidyanathan’s Copyrights and Copywrongs

Posted: October 8, 2008 in Readings, Review, School, writing
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As I read through Copyrights and Copywrongs, I found myself having a debate about the argument being presented. On the one hand, I had my academic side talking about the value of a citation culture, about the importance of fair use and the interesting developments of Open Source etc. On the other, I had my creative side talking about getting credit for my work, about controlling how someone else uses the ideas that I present. That part of me feels that copyright needs to be strong, and weakening it weakens the creative endeavor.

But does it really? Twain (interestingly enough painted as a villain) believed that it does, that by not having complete control forever, there is no incentive to write. That the money should continue to come at least to the children, and let the grandchildren work on their own. He wanted copyright to be the life of the artist + fifty years. And I can understand that, to an extent.

After all, would I want to be a writer if I didn’t think I’d make any money off of it? Well, that’s a question for any artist. Does an artist do it for the art or for the money? A much larger question than I have time to address.

But that’s an oversimplification of the way Vaidhyanathan wants copyright to work. It isn’t all or nothing. Being a writer can still make me money, even if copyright is just for seven years, even if it doesn’t control derivative works. Because it’s true, sampling does technically violate copyright. But it’s also true that it tends to increase the sales of and attention to the original.

I remember when Napster was a big issue. Everyone complained that free sharing of music would destroy the music industry (just as they once argued that vinyl would destroy the music industry). But CD sales were HIGHER in the “Napster era” than any time before. It was helping sales, not hurting them.

Thinner copyright seems to encourage creativity. Twain’s ideas seem to stifle it. If nothing can be touched for decades after the author’s death (worse when the author is a corporation), then it cannot inspire further works. It gives opportunities for new creativity, and isn’t that the whole point of copyright? I mean, yes, originally it was just to protect the authors, and I’m all for that. But it does seem that we’re getting out of hand. Why is it that the Verve lost all rights to “Bittersweet Symphony” because they sampled some of the Rolling Stones? Why is it they made no money (and neither, by the way, did the Stones) from that song?

So my academic model seems to make more sense, as does the whole ‘copyleft’ model and creative commons. Yes, the author should get credit (and yes, I think there is still an author), and yes, the author should be paid. But I think that once a thing is created and let go, it is no longer under that strict control: all may sample, all may examine, all may adapt, parody, or simply make fun of. Fair game in the art world. So long as there is credit where it’s actually due (the author, not the publisher), and so long as there is real incentive for being an author, then I think copyright has done its job.

But when it starts pulling away rights from the authors, when it starts stifling creativity of others, and when it starts getting used and subverted by the corporate establishment for their own greedy ends and not the ends of more and better creative endeavors, then I think we’ve gone too far.

The book was preaching to the converted. What can I say?

  1. Siva Vaidhyanathan says:

    Thanks for the nice words and helpful thoughts about my book.

    I would like to address the chief concerns of your creative side: “getting credit for my work, about controlling how someone else uses the ideas that I present.”

    American copyright does neither of these things. Nothing in copyright assures attribution rights (or moral rights) and nothing controls the flow of ideas.

    Many artists decry this situation and wish copyright would deal with them.

    In fact, the best way to ensure attribution (and thus credit) is to adopt Creative Commons license terms that require users of your work to grant you attribution. That makes more sense than relying on naked copyright, which has never been designed to serve the real interests of creators.

  2. cbdilger says:

    How did it compare to Kembrew’s book? I keep meaning to read that book, but never get to it….

  3. cogitas says:

    I would say that it compared as a very interesting supplement or complimentary work to Kembrew’s. I think that the two together could be a very strong basis for a class on copyright (and copywrong/left)

    Siva: I’m glad you like what I wrote, and I’m flattered that you even found it. I completely agree that Creative Commons is the best thing currently out there and that American copyright does not do what my creative side wants it to do. But that is, I think, what it was INTENDED to do, as you pointed out early on in the book. Attribution is important, and protecting that is much more important than protecting who gets to sue whom.

    My snap reaction of wanting control is just that; when I think on it, I know that it would be better for me, and that I would appreciate it more, if others used my work to inspire them or to create new things, and just mentioned that part of it came from me.

    Thanks for the great comment!

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