Friday, June 25, 2010

No pilfering of my work, please

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Authors of original works are passionate about their creations. Each word, brush stroke, or angle of camera lens is considered and re-considered before put in use. For that reason, since the first writers carved on a clay tablet, they don’t appreciate others making copies, claiming the work as their own, and selling it for a profit.

Society, on the other hand, has not always agreed with the authors. Before the printing press, manuscripts were laboriously copied by scriveners to be bought and sold without any thought to paying the author. In those days, how would the author know his work had been copied unless he happened upon it in a church library or in royal’s home?

The invention of the printing press didn’t help authors much at all. Printers would petition their governments for exclusive monopolies to print and sell manuscripts—in 1469 the Italian government granted such monopoly to a Johannes of Speyer, conceding a five-year exclusive right to print in Venice and its dominions. The author’s rights were barely considered.

Albrecht Dürer claimed his own form of copyright, not the simple © resting quietly on the corner of his work, stating, when he discovered copies of his original works being sold, “Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings.”

Therein lay the problem--each creator had to petition the government for the exclusive right to his own work—a time consuming and expensive process. The quandary for the authors of those times was ‘Do I want my work published for all the world to read and by so doing give my rights to it to the printer or publisher who will benefit far more than I or do I petition my government?’ And because the creative folks wanted that recognition they grudgingly signed over their rights or took the time to petition for a license to publish their own words.

This was the situation for centuries until the first copyright act in the world, the Statute of Anne, passed in the United Kingdom in 1710. The preamble to the “Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the copies of printed books in the author,” set forth the problem—printers were printing books and selling them without the receiving permission from the authors. The British parliament saw this as “a notorious invasion of the property of rightful proprietors of such books and writings, to their great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families.”

This was indeed a serious situation. The statute conferred exclusive rights upon the author for 14 years and “for a further 14 years if the author was still alive at the end of the first period.” Lives were shorter then. The US has its own version of a copyright act, which grants the rights to authors for their lifetime plus 70 years. We live longer now.

Moving forward 300 years, we find authors in a new predicament, or maybe a repeat of an old problem. Now we have digital printing and the Internet. On the one hand, authors can now print and distribute their own works, free from the constraints of the printer/publisher. On the other hand, it is quite easy to cut and paste someone’s words and claim them as your own.

When does the cutting and pasting fall into the realm of plagiarism and a violation of the author’s rights? Or is it just fair use? Fair use is a term found in the US copyright law that allows anyone to quote or reproduce parts of another’s work without permission if done for the purposes of commentary, or news reporting or education.

The difference between fair use and stealing another’s work is not clear. There is no bright line that distinguishes how many words, lines, notes, or images can be taken without permission. An author may say, like Dürer, that taking of another’s work is pilfering and is deserved of punishment for “not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.” Dürer was serious about protecting his work.

While I suspect that modern authors don’t generally put pilferers in mortal danger, they do, however, bring lawsuits or send cease and desist letters. And I suspect that over time, the distinction between fair use and stealing will become clearer until, of course, the next generation of technology comes along causing creatives to take on a new challenge to the security of their work.

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