Flashback Friday – What Makes an Original Work “Yours”?

For the first of my Flashback Friday series, I wanted to reprint a post from May 2014 on copyright and artists’ compensation.

In our world, we are bombarded with copyright notices, whether through the unavoidable segment of DVDs where we are told that piracy is not a victimless crime, in familiar, tiny images like ©, ®, or ™, or in the seemingly-interminable end user license agreements for software. We are told incessantly that something belongs to someone else, that our use of such does not transfer ownership, and basically, that we are indebted to someone else for the item in the first place.

This affects the literary world a great deal, as there can be concern about what is or is not “original work” and how much collaboration we should accept from those around us. Writers are never completely independent of other people, ideas, and works, but there can be some ambiguity as to how to navigate influence and what constitutes “our own work.”

Books like the James Potter series by G. Norman Lippert are a good example. They’re made as eBooks and, from what I can tell, not available for purchase since they are not written by the original author and holder of the copyrights for Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling. However, she has sanctioned them, according to the James Potter series website “so long as they are respectful and appropriate for children.”  All this means that, while he can use her characters and make stories of his own in her world, he cannot actually profit directly from them. He is making a name and fan-base for himself, but he isn’t getting paid royalties since the stories are free.

img_0999 by diannehope

Tim Parks, in his blog post “Does Copyright Matter?” presents some very interesting ideas on the topic of copyright law (and I highly recommend reading his entire post). He states, “There is very little justice in the returns artists receive. Works of equal value and quality produce quite different incomes or no income at all.” This is similar to what we see in the case of Lippert and Rowling. Of course, Rowling created the world of Harry Potter, in the first place, but Lippert goes on to create his own stories, doubtlessly spending a great deal of time and energy in doing so. However, one makes money and the other only makes fans.

In regards to copyright in general, Parks writes, “What we are talking about, more brutally, is preventing other people from making money from my work without paying me a tribute, because my work belongs to me. It’s mine.” He notes that, while copyright can be passed down to one’s children or heirs, eventually, the right expires, and “society finally denies that intellectual property is the same as physical property…society, in order to build up and enjoy a shared culture, encouraging the accumulation of collective wisdom, needs to have free access to the products of my intellect…”

He argues that the original authors would want it this way, protecting the immediate family, but thereafter conceding “to the author’s dreams of immortality.” He adds that copyright “encourages a novelist to direct his work not to his immediate peer group, those whose approval he most craves, but to the widest possible audience in possession of the price of a paperback.”

This leads to the question, why should writers write? Is it just for compensation, or to share a vision with others? It would seem wrong to expect them to work hours and years for nothing, but at the same time, how right is it to say that certain author’s original works cannot receive compensation because their works are not wholly original?

Even Shakespeare borrowed from earlier stories, myths, and histories to write his plays, but in the world he lived, there was no such thing as copyright infringement and most of the authors were no longer alive to protect their works. His own works were then printed in pirated form, and we have no record of him suing anyone over it (though of course, he would have had a vested interest in protecting them, since he was part of the acting company that produced them and therefore would want to keep them from other acting companies).

Some have said that, if society keeps going on at this rate, every phrase we say will be registered as a trademark, slogan, or some such copyright-protected thing, to where we’ll be guilty of infringement at every turn.

At the other extreme, though, we could have authors’ works being stolen at every turn, cut-and-pasted and otherwise modified into spin-offs of inferior quality, sullying the reputation of the originals until many readers are turned away due to an encounter with a fraud.

So how far should an author’s copyright rights go? Should it include the world they made, or just the works they generated? Is there a percentage of a work that should be borrowable, or must a writer wait out a copyright, losing a living because he or she was born too close to the original writer and thus lived during the copyright term?

© 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by Dianne Hope, Creative Commons

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