Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Just Whose Side Are They On, Anyway?

by Janis Patterson

I’m angry. Again. But this time it is something that really affects all of us and our industry.

The New York District Appeals Court has ruled against the Author’s Guild about Google’s scanning of books. Part of the ruling says :

"…the purpose of copyright law is not to guarantee authors a living, nor is it to give them exclusive control over who uses their work and how. The purpose of the law is to provide an incentive for people to create artistic works because doing this benefits society." 

Excuse me?

We are supposed to be writing for the benefit of society? I hope someone can explain why taking away control of our work and the money it should be generating for us is an incentive for us to ‘create artistic works.’

That kind of thinking smacks of the old idea of writers as starving in a garret while writing something just for the purpose of creating something for the ages. Yes, I know there are some people who call themselves writers who do write for no purpose other than wanting their deathless prose to be read by the general populace, but (and I’m getting snarky here) they usually aren’t very good writers, just wannabes who want to be thought of as a published author no matter what. And they certainly aren’t professional writers.

Most writers I know write not only because they love it, but because it is their job. They expend effort and creativity, and deserve fair recompense. If someone can just come and take something we have worked to create and give it away to all and sundry without our permission or profit, why should we do it? To benefit society? Give me a break. Try that booshwah on a plumber. Or a carpenter. Or a stock broker. Or just about any other field.

But you do get paid, someone said. You get an advance (which is very often little more than pocket change, if that) and you do get royalties. How long do they think people will buy books so we can get royalties if they discover it is available for free? There is an ‘entitlement mentality’ in our society today where there are those who think everything should be free – birth control, cell phones, college, health care, medicine, whatever. I think in their greed and lack of self responsibility they haven’t thought it out that nothing is ever really free – someone somewhere has to pay for it. The writer pays with his time and imagination and plain hard work, but the court says negating the writer’s rights is a victory for ‘fair use.’

Fair to whom? Certainly not to the writer. Google is a $450-billion web giant copying millions of books, and then using them in part to feed its massive, money-generating search empire. They say this benefits the author because it will make his work easier to find. Perhaps – but what difference does it make if the author cannot retain control of his creation? Pierre Leval, US Circuit Judge, said “While authors are undoubtedly important intended beneficiaries of copyright, the ultimate, primary intended beneficiary is the public.”

I do not write to benefit the public. I write because it is my work, and from it I earn my income. To remove control of a writer’s work from the writer and make it free to the public might benefit the public in the short term, but what happens when the working professionals quit writing because they no longer earn even part of a living from it? Obviously the gap will be filled with those writers who do write just so that people can read their words and thoughts without regard for a career or proper recompense. Some of them might be good, but I’ll bet that most won’t. And that dissolution of standards will truly not be to the benefit of the public or even to literature itself.

Today on some of my writers loops there were attorneys doing apologia for this, saying that this was nothing new, that ‘fair use’ has been part of the law since the days of the Constitution. Perhaps it has, but that does not necessarily make it right. One thing that became evident is that there is no legal definition of ‘fair use.’ Is it a basic premise? An overarching idea? A phrase? A catchphrase? What? And even if it has been around from the beginning, I’m not sure writers are helped or protected by this sad legal situation being publicized.

This misbegotten ruling eviscerates the very concept of copyright, is a complete negation of the principle of copyright. Several someones have suggested that perhaps we should stop copyrighting our books with the government. At $35 per registration and with all the books being published now, that could add up to a fair amount of money. They have suggested that hitting them in the pocketbook might make the government re-think the proposition. I disagree. Monetary concerns might work with a private entity, but our government seems to thrive on overspending and then simply printing great amounts of money to make up for it. The few hundred thousand such a boycott would generate wouldn’t even be noticed. Besides, in cases of theft and/or piracy by others than the government-sanctioned ‘fair use’ crowd, you have a much smaller chance of justice and fair recompense if your work is not copyrighted through the government. The writer is going to be screwed either way.


We created our books and our characters. They are our property, and we should be in control of how and when and under what circumstances people have access to them. Writing is work, and the hire should be worthy of the work and the workman.

24 comments:

Earl Staggs said...


Well said, Susan, and I agree completely.

D Jess said...

I agree. Well said!

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Amen Janis!
Good luck and God's Blessings.
PamT

Maris said...

Excellent summary and argument. I still can't believe the court came to that decision.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Oh, my goodness. I wonder it they'd all be willing to work for nothing?

Kathleen Kaska said...

Unbelievable! Had I read this on April 1, I would have thought it was a joke.

Alice Duncan said...

As ever, the authors are at the bottom of the totem pole. Good blog. Gah.

Rose Anderson said...

Well said. The judicial system in this country is broken from the bottom to the top. :(

D.C. Charles said...

AMEN.

Mary Marvella said...

Well said! My ex is a photographer and some customers had no problem with buying the bare minimum package or not buying anything. Some folks had copies made of what they bought or even sent the proofs off to be copied and then bought nothing from us.

Gemma Juliana said...

Excellent post. Just another injustice from the justice system.

Reggi Allder said...

Great post but sad. Money seems to rule the system.

Kaye George said...

What an astounding decision! I guess it's only a matter of time before our literature all gets stolen and we end up like the music business--screwed big time. I'm SO thankful to everyone who actually buys my work. Those are lovely people.

E. Ayers said...

I wonder if they do it to the big authors or do they just pick on the indies and small presses?

Dee Hendershot Gatrell said...

Unbelievable. This is crazy. We work, we need paid, just like all the politicians and lawyers and everyone else..

Linda Thorne said...

I must've missed this news about us giving our work away. I agree with you totally. Well thought out and well written and I think you speak for many people.

kathywaller1.com said...

Oh, yes. Shades of Gray was written to benefit society. Stephen King worked at menial jobs for years just so he could someday have the privilege of benefiting society.

I spent an hour composing a comment that rivals A Modest Proposal in both tone and brilliance--well, no, although what I wrote is brilliant, it is considerably meaner that its model and not at all modest--but then I deleted it. Some people still (maybe) think I'm a nice person, and I don't want them to stumble across this and discover my true nature. But I copied and pasted and saved it on my hard drive, just I case I ever decide to start telling the truth.

kathywaller1.com said...

PS I told my husband about this, and he asked if you used the term "slave labor." You didn't, but he said you'd be safe in doing so, if you were so inclined.

Koko Brown said...

Great post! The White House is currently developing a strategic plan relating to copyright enforcement. To assist them with this plan, the Copyright Alliance will be sending its comments and recommendations and they need author input.

If you would like to add your two cents, here's the link:http://copyrightalliance.org/WHSurvey

Unknown said...

Agree completely, and I'm not apt to be out any myself since I'm not one who Google could make much money on. The world is going crazy!(I'm not really unknown-I'm Norma Huss.)

Kaye George said...

Koko, I made a protest on that piracy form. I think we should ALL do that.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Amen! I'm also adding my protest to the form.

Barb Caffrey said...

Ridiculous and absurd ruling. Interesting and cogent post.

Janis, I wish you hadn't had to write this, but I agree with your assessment.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Read this again, and for those who think the advance is enough, what about those of us who don't get an advance?