Zoe Rodriguez: The Danger of Copyleft

1 August 2010

If Miles Franklin had relinquished the copyright in My Brilliant Career how would she have fared? This was her first, and by far her most, successful novel. Where I work, at Copyright Agency Limited, which collects and distributes over $100 million a year for its 17,000 authors and publisher members, we sometimes say when it all gets too hard, ‘nobody ever died because of copyright’. So, it was chastening to see the agony Tolstoy endured late in his life over whether to offer his works to the commons or retain copyright acted out with such passion in The Last Station.

When authors ask what I think about copyleft or Creative Commons, I can only tell them that it depends on their circumstances and what they want to achieve from their writing. For instance, if they expect no remuneration from their works and are happy for others to do what they will with their works, or even just to copy them as they are without having to seek permission, then Creative Commons may be for them. If they want to have a career in writing and hope to be paid for their work, then I don’t think CC is for them.

Some tell me that they are happy to offer their works under CC licensing ‘just to get their name out there’. I’m not sure that there’s any increased exposure through attaching CC licensing to works – and probably there’s far more kudos, even today, to be gained through being published by an established press, very few of which would see any benefit in CC licensing because it would hamper their ability to market and obtain monetary return for a work in which they had invested their resources. As my mother, poet Judith Rodriguez says “if you let your stuff go for free you will not likely figure in reviews… Editors of properly commercial publications vary, but their reputation rides on what they publish, so they often DO have critical principles behind their decision to choose your poem. It’s not just money you forfeit, when you say ‘Print it, it’s yours!’ but the knowledge that it’s valued – not just left-out-in-the-open available.”

And, if you’re a poet and you give works away under CC licensing, then it’s very possible you’ll never receive a penny for your work. The places that are most likely to want to use poetry are not cashed-up corporations but not-for-profit educational and cultural institutions. Educational institutions are required to pay equitable remuneration to creators of works under licences managed by CAL. Many poets and other authors have told me that the CAL fees they have received are more than any advances or royalties they have earned. A CC licence would see the end to that.

Some suggest authors shouldn’t charge for their works: they should use them as a teaser for other money-making activities. The trouble is that the vast majority of authors cannot adopt a business model predicated on their writing being a loss-leader for other goods or services. Writers just aren’t rock-stars. Readers (except crazed children’s book fans) are not going to pay a fortune for merchandise and concert going. And performance and writing are not the same thing. A number of our best authors are introverts who do not shine or wish to exist in the public eye.

The history of Creative Commons comes from IT licensing systems. Some IT developers decided it was a better business model for them to permit other IT developers to use their works without having to pay them a licence fee – so long as others were able to use the resulting work for free. What many forget is that IT companies who adopted this licensing practice have a business model where IT consultants work to service the programs makes them their money. Again, this is not a model authors of fictional works can generally adopt.

What of governments and other organisations who see it as their task to see the works they publish disseminated as broadly as possible – and not as income-streams to line the coffers of the state? Well, they’ve always had the ability to publish works under terms which allowed individuals, or groups for that matter, to make copies of works without having to seek permission or pay fees. The distinction between them and authors, especially poets, is that the government runs on a business model not open to most poets – it is funded by taxes.

The rise of digital technology, and especially the increasing ability for information to be copied and broadcast around the globe almost instantaneously, has led many to believe that the frontiers are free, and that even the very content that travels along digital pathways is different from its printed/ published cousin. Seems to me this isn’t the case – distribution may have been made a whole lot easier, but the demand for quality content is still there, and experienced, gifted and professional writers need to be paid for their time if they are to continue their work.

Newspapers have tested the waters with publishing without charge in the digital world – in the belief that online advertising would replace the cover price of the printed work. It turns out that this has failed, and that newspaper proprietors are now turning back to a pay for content model – the most explicit of these moves recently taken by Rupert Murdoch.

My view is that, as with most things in life (actionable crimes aside), people are free to do what they will. Decisions should be made on the basis of informed choice. The author is the first owner of copyright in an original work they create. If an author sees dissemination of their work as the most important outcome for their creative endeavour, then CC licences might be the right path for them. However, if authors want long-term careers in writing where they obtain some economic sustenance from their intellectual capital, then CC probably isn’t the right path. It’s not always possible to predict which works will be the most valued by the readership – it could be the first work a writer publishes.

I think it’s particularly important for authors to consider carefully the terms on which they offer their works – what they produce today has a copyright life which extends through their lifetime and for a further 70 years. Miles Franklin would have missed out on the bulk of royalties from her writing if she’d used CC licensing on My Brilliant Career and writers from Patrick White to Peter Temple would not have shared the legacy.

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