All I wanted to do

‘This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.’

Woody Guthrie wrote these words on the typescript submitted for copyright of ‘This Land is Your Land’. They are entirely in keeping with the man, his beliefs and actions. They also represent an authoritative challenge to all writers and artists who want to protect their copyright.

1103px-Woody_GuthrieAt the heart of that challenge is the artist’s natural desire to be rewarded for their work. But what kind of reward do we want? For Woody Guthrie, the reward came first from the satisfaction of achieving something good and secondly from seeing people respond to his creations, in recognition, laughter and enjoyment. And he saw no better confirmation of that than hearing people sing his words. The oral transmission of stories, music and ideas is much older than the Internet.

Most artists, writers and musicians want the same: an appreciative audience. But they also need to feed themselves and their families, so the reward of being paid is also important, especially in those forms, like writing, that take time and offer limited opportunities to earn through one’s art.  Copyright, as first conceived, was an effective way of securing a writer both recognition and the livelihood that would enable them to write more.

Of course, as art became commercialised for large markets in the course of the last 150 years, some artists have done more than earn a living: they have become immensely rich. One would have to be a very principled or very unmaterialistic artist not to desire at least some of those rewards for oneself. But that doesn’t make it right, or wise, to define one’s goals in the terms of a society with a questionable attitude to money, especially if one claims a critical position towards that society’s values.

I’ve touched before on the problems of defending the market value of creative products in a digital age and I’ve thought for some time that the answer must be to uncouple the two kinds of reward–recognition and money–that are currently bound up in the single concept of copyright.  Creative Commons and similar approaches to licensing seemed to be one way of doing that, by allowing people freely to use, distribute and even to adapt work while preserving the creator’s right to be recognised as such. I’ve made my work available in that form for a number of years: it is widely distributed online, though the two things may be unrelated.

But reading a critique of the Creative Commons approach by Florian Cramer has given me pause for thought. Among other things, he contrasts it with the Open Source movement, which he sees as having brought many benefits in software development. The connection with existing forms of copyright and the complexities of legislation make it hard to establish genuinely free approaches without the clarity of the open source.

As a writer I place more value on being read than being paid. I don’t—couldn’t—earn a living through royalties: that has to be through my other work. But I have seen Creative Commons as a way of keeping some control over what I say, or at least of distinguishing what I have written from what I have not. The idea that speech is an act in the world, and therefore that it carries ethical, philosophical and political meaning is central to my thinking. A writer is responsible for his or her writing, as each person is responsible for their actions. Because writing for publication, whether in the form of a book and lecture or a blog, is a public act (it’s in the word) it carries a different kind of responsibility. So Creative Commons seemed a way of acknowledging responsibility for what I’ve written but not for what somebody else makes of it.

Having read Florian Cramer I’m not so sure that distinction can (or should) be made. Indeed, I’ve often written about the autonomy of the reader—the necessary audience who hears, watches, looks at or otherwise recreates a work of art. And having spoken to many people who have formed quite different ideas of what a text or lecture I have written meant, I have to accept that, in truth I cannot control what people make of it. So perhaps it is wisest, having tried to write as well as I can, simply to let things go and like Woody Guthrie, be happy if anyone reads it, reflects on it, quotes it, reworks it or builds on it. Writing it is all I wanted to do.

PS Many thanks to Juli for letting me know about Florian Cramer’s paper; her own work on copyright and digital piracy in a post-communist Bulgaria will be published shortly.