By | 22 September 2002

The theme for this, the 11th issue of Cordite and our fifth online, is copyleft. As one contributor recently asked: “What the #$%! is that?”

It's a good question.

Most people would struggle to explain adequately what copyright is, let alone how it affects them, especially in an online environment. While the last thing we want to do is set out, in textbook terms, what copyright and copyleft actually signify, a few words here may be of some benefit and interest.

Whatever your definition of copyright, one thing seems clear: for writers, it has become an almost nostalgic touchstone of integrity, originality and ownership. The number of submisisons we receive in which each poem is footnoted with a © symbol is testament to this need for marking, despite the fact that under Australian copyright laws (as elsewhere), copyright does not in fact need to be asserted at all – it resides in the creation of the work itself.

Why then this insistence on asserting copyright? Many obvious reasons spring to mind, including the fear that one's creativity is not being protected adequately by the law, pride in one's individuality, the need to take out some sort of insurance policy against the inevitable ripping off of one's work by an amoral publisher. Hey, who can blame them?

On the Internet, these fears become more magnified and, truth be told, justified. As PiO points out in his provocative “Net Copyright” article in this issue, the ability on the part of a web editor to link to a variety of pages scattered elsewhere on the Internet, thereby creating a virtual anthology of whatever they like, remains one of the great stumbling blocks for writers used to publishing in discrete, traditional media. Recent changes to the Australian system of copyright ostensibly prohibit such activities as “deep linking” (that is, linking more than two layers “deep” into a website, such as “,editorial.asp”) but it is hard to think of any but the most conscientious (or anal) of organisations adhering to this admittedly trivial requirement.

Linking is what makes the Internet work. But it also makes some people very nervous. Perhaps not so nervous as caching, surely the most problematic aspect of the new “search engine” paradigm. As we ourselves have learnt, simply inserting a piece of “no cache” code into an html page is just not going to work. Copies of this page are being cached on your computer as we speak – in fact, it's already happened. If this page is viewed by twenty people, then at least twenty copies of this page are already in existence. This doesn't include the copies cached by search engines such as Google, the National Library's Pandora project and other automated data collectors. In this context, what's the big deal about copyright protection?

Well, for some people it is a big deal. Digital rights management is now a lucrative industry, from which the most advnatage is levered by corporations wishing to protect their online “content”. It's funny how an advertising brochure in your mailbox is junk, while a company's online training manual is “content”. Whither poetry in all this?

It seems I'm asking more questions than I can possibly answer. Here's a few more. Take Michael Farrell's genre-busting “cover versions” of Laurie Duggan and Dorothy Porter in this issue. What would be your reaction to such an acitvity? Would you consider this a breach of your copyright? How about if we were to publish the complete works of AB Paterson on this site, a la What guarantee would you have that the works have been transcribed correctly? Indeed, what guarantee would you have that they had ever been typed up as the author would have wished? Why do we automatically trust print publishers, but sneer at the lack of web authenticity?

At the same time, as Rebecca Cannon points out in her thoughtful article on copyleft, how would you feel if the web were to revert (as it will this October 1, on grey/gray day) to a bland, graphic-free, artless domain, containing nothing that has been re-hashed, recycled, cut or pasted? I'm sure you'd soon realise that a lot of what we take for “creativity” and “originality” on the Internet (as, come on, we do in the real world too) is actually not original at all. The microphone image on our new audio page has been used a thousand times before. Where did it come from? Who cares? The little graphic of Les Murray on our front cover was discovered via a Google image search. There were hundreds of them, none credited. It took less than a second to make a copy. And, again, who really cares?

Then again, I'm sure not many of you will have seen Patrick Jones' “Monument to the Unmanned” before. It's loaded with far more meaning than I could ever fit into this editorial.

Enough questions. Seek your own answers. I hope you enjoy Cordite #11 as much as we enjoyed compiling it.

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