Hey again!

I've been blogging about pirates lately. The kind with computers, not the kind with swords and guns. I know it's not something people generally talk about in the web fiction community because it's technically impossible to pirate something that's free. But it's something I'm quite passionate about and it is frustrating to see so many authors who don't understand the issues yet feel the need to rant loudly about them anyway. And with more and more overlap between totally free web fiction and semi-commercial publishing (e.g. indies on Kindle) and commercial publishing it seems to me that important for ALL authors to understand the nature and consequences and of copyright law.

Do you guys have any thoughts about copyright law or the anti-copyright movement? Or do you think it is just irrelevant to people like us who aren't selling stuff anyway? Does copyright hurt or help authors? Will the publishing industry's response be different/more successful/less successful than the music and film industries in dealing with piracy?

I think copyright is basically the result of a culture that looks for divisions rather than joinings. "This is mine, not yours." "This is yours, but I can take it with my gun/court order/threat of public shaming." There's very little concept of "This belongs to everyone," and even when there is it's a token effort (national parks come to mind). I think you can trace it back to when the first culture conceived of land-ownership. You look at pre-agricultural cultures and you find very little concept of ownership, and even that is fluid. Many hunter-gatherer cultures (which is how we all started out) tend to periodically give everything away.

I think copyright as it exists today is pretty ridiculous. Mostly it serves corporate interests, and not the plebeians. I do, however, think that copyright can be used consciously as a tool to empower creators (which is why I love Creative Commons so much). Then there's the whole Copyleft idea, and the broader idea of not licensing your work at all.

The news tells me that pirating is theft by immoral people who steal the fruit of hardworking taxpayer's labor. But it seems like for some people it's just an extension of the idea that "This belongs to everyone." That it belongs to everyone regardless of socio-economic class, which is what a money-economy inevitably divides us into.

I get wanting credit. I want attribution for what I write. That's what's left of my ego making a stand (just saying for my case, not anybody else). I get wanting to reap the economic reward of your labor. If I can eventually make a living by writing, I probably will. That's the world we live in, and I respect the desire/need for creators to do that. But honestly, I think most of us doing webfic are such small fries no one's going to "pirate" us anyway (there will obviously be exceptions). Traditional copyright might protect certain rights that most people will never need to exercise, but I think it's the mindset that can hurt us. It's a mindset of clutching our work in a tight fist so no one can "steal" it, when, after all, a lot of what we're doing is trying to share.

Personally, when I get Guts and Sass polished and into ebook, and eventually audiobook format, I'm going to upload it to Pirate Bay myself. Maybe no one will ever look at it, but it'll be there.

Copyleft and Creative Commons aren't inherently anti-copyright, though--they actually rely on Copyright law to work. I license my work under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license... by doing that I'm not actually giving up the copyright to my work, I am simply using my copyright to define how it can be distributed.

There is an anti-copyright movement, but I don't have a well-formed opinion on them.

Copyleft and Creative Commons are good examples of where the copyright debate will probably end up, as it's unlikely that copyright will be abolished any time soon.

My views on copyright come from the fact that there's a difference between the ideal of copyright, that is--get credit for your work and the use of copyright--that is "I" own this, only I can distribute it, only I can use it modify it or use it in any other way other than passive consumption.

Derivative works, for example, suffer from copyright. This happens more in music than anywhere else I think, but in writing we get ridiculous authors like Robin Hobb who who even say that fan fiction infringes on copyright. And now that I spend most of my time in developing countries I also realize how much copyright impedes the sharing of art because it is literally impossible for people to access/afford legally distributed books/movies/music. I don't think anyone's ever going to give up on the ideal of copyright. But I think it's important to recognize the harm it can do, and maybe eventually people will come to accept something in the middle of the spectrum like Creative Commons.


That's true now but it wasn't always true. Virgil's Aeneid can be thought of as "fan fiction" based on Homer's Illiad and Odessy, (i.e., "this is a story of what happened to the survivors of the fall of Troy") but it was considered a great work in its own right. And Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries all wrote plays that were essentially riffs off each other's work.

The idea of derivative works falling under another author's copyright is actually a pretty modern idea and there have been some rather ridiculous consequences coming from it. On the other hand, that's partially what allows me to stipulate that reproductions of my work must be used non-commercially, so I can't claim there's no benefit form it whatsoever.

Like everything else, copyright has uses and abuses. It was created to promote education and the ability for authors to make a living, thanks to their legal rights to prevent unauthorised distribution. It still does the same thing today. It's why we don't see quite so many plagiarised works and unauthorised reproductions as in the early days of printing (or in modern-day China). Lots of people have forgotten that in the silly dust-up over piracy.

Now, I'm not one to support the small-minded monopolism of distributing corporations -- or anyone else who uses copyright like some kind of legal scattergun -- but what annoys me even more are the clots who claim to pirate stuff as a moral stand. Making a copy of something that isn't yours, without paying for it, is exactly the kind of unauthorised reproduction copyright was designed to fight. Even if it's only one copy, for personal use, and whether information wants to be free or not. Yes, we need new legislation for a new century by lawmakers who actually understand the issue, and lobbying for heavy-handed laws to sue teenagers into lifelong debt is idiotic, but it's not going to suddenly become legal to pirate things on the internet. Authors and creators are still going to need legal protections from people who seek to abuse them. Projects like Creative Commons or Copyleft have a lot of idealism to them but they still rely on the basic legal foundation of copyright according to the Berne convention; to prevent unauthorised redistribution that violates the given licence.

Now, if I were drafting the new legislation, I'd give authors and creators some protections from those distributing corporations. That would solve a few problems.



PS. Apologies if this rant is only barely relevant, I have a habit of doing that!

"but what annoys me even more are the clots who claim to pirate stuff as a moral stand. "

Clots like me, you mean. :-) lol.

Not to be too confrontational, but do you know why pirates claim it as a moral stand? I'm not suggesting you don't, but there is a common misconception that pirates are just lazy/cheap and want stuff handed to them for free and just make up morals to justify their actions and it's nothing more than that. But the reality is, of course, much more complicated. People who are just lazy and cheap don't normally go out and start worldwide movements, after all.

"Authors and creators are still going to need legal protections..."

Protection from what? The notion that creators need protection rests on the belief that unlawful distribution hurts them. But this is another misconception that largely comes from the corporations.


;-) "

Sure. But the question is, are all derivatives bad? Copyright law assumes they are. (Unless someone has gone through the extensive and expensive licensing processes) I remember reading a while back about derivative anime and manga, and how people will publish things that are basically fan fiction--which we would consider a flagrant violation of author's rights (even with a modified notion of copyright) However, the authors of the originals, in these cases don't take issue with the derivatives because they increase the fanbase of the original.

I'm going to have to go dig up that source...

@AeliusBlythe: If an author doesn't object to someone making a derivative work, then there's no issue under copyright law. Copyright law does not require that you defend your copyright, to my recollection. As with the other examples (copyleft, creative commons), it gives you the tools to say what you are and aren't okay with.

There may be lots of people who feel entitled to the work of another, for any number of reasons, but that doesn't make them right, wise, or (in most cases) even internally consistent.

Eloquently put, Chris. Your post gets a thumbs up from me.



About derivative works:

It's interesting to me that derivative works have become the abnormal. We look at fanfiction as if it's not "real" literature, or as Chris put it "There's a reason nobody refers to the stuff as "original"." But why? Why is it not original? Because it uses existing characters and contexts? What is original? I mean, look at the oral tradition. The nature of storytelling is derivative. You hear a story growing up, and it morphs as you tell it to your kids. You hear a story traveling in another culture group, revise it in the context of your own mythology and archetypes and retell it.

Copyright as it exists declares stories static. It starts and ends here, period exclamation point, and anything that comes after is "not original," "not real," not worthy of note, theft. Sure, maybe some people try to ride on the coattails of other people's commercial success, but I think most people are simply doing something very human: reinventing a story that better reflects their own experience or desires.

AeliusBlythe's point about the Aeneid illustrates something important: There are other cultures, historically and presently, that don't have the hangups about intellectual property that the modern West does. I was working with a sumi-e artist for a book project and he pointed out that many sumi-e masters would encourage their students to actually copy and sell their work to make a living until they made it. I lived in Japan for a while, and the entire manga and anime industry thrives on unauthorized derivative works. People go and write fanfiction, make toys, art, half of it pornographic, and sell it at real stores. And neither author nor producer raises a stink because they know these derivative works are actually increasing their revenue. Somebody goes and reads some nice fandom porn and says, "Man, I really want to find out where this all comes from and read the original story. And people buy and buy and buy.


"@AeliusBlythe: If an author doesn't object to someone making a derivative work, then there's no issue under copyright law. "

Yes, and my issue is not with people who do not take issue with derivative work. It's with people who do.

"the underlying idea continues to try to benefit society as a whole: it gives individual creators a short-term monopoly on their work as an incentive to enrich society with new ideas and stories and creations that will eventually become the property of all (ie. public domain)"

But the underlying idea is not the practice and law should not be based on intention but on reality.

1) Why do you think so?

2) Assuming that a chunk of people will not create without copyright "protections", many more people will have the ability to create things that would have been illegal before.

"There may be lots of people who feel entitled to the work of another, for any number of reasons, but that doesn't make them right, wise, or (in most cases) even internally consistent. "

And there are lots of people who believe that their work cannot be improved upon or grown, but that does not make them right, wise or consistent.


"AeliusBlythe's point about the Aeneid illustrates something important... "

Actually that was ubersoft, but he's right. Our idea of "original art" is, I think, largely new and incorrect.


1)But copyright law has not given you that opportunity. Finding another way to create and support creations has given you that opportunity. Copyright law could cease to exist and people who had found another way to support their work would be just fine. Or at least as "just fine" as creators usually are. I'm not sure what the stats are in other fields, but the number of people who make a living as writers is miniscule. According to the census it's about 1/2 of a percent.

2)And yes, I see you saying that authors see more benefit in sharing and have given their consent for these things. Unfortunately, most authors haven't seen that and I think that's too bad. As I'm discovering as I research attitudes of commercial writers towards piracy, they display an appalling lack of understanding on the subject. (btw. I'm not saying specific people hear do, I'm just talking about many of the writers I've had contact with lately) See, Chris, you have a pretty well informed opinion on this, and I can respect that even though I don't agree with it. But most writers seem to blindly buy into the "you (we) need complete control over your work to make you lots and lots of money on it" fantasy that the publishers encourage. And sadly that is really more of an illusion.

Creative work is, by its nature, something very personal. Even if you get professional about it, the good stuff still is made from pieces of you. Copyright gives people a sense of ownership, and a sense of ownership is a strong motivator for most people. Copyright provides an economic incentive for the creation of original work (and by economic I don't mean just monetary, I mean any number of effects that creative people find valuable). Without those economic incentives, fewer people would put in the hours of otherwise thankless toil to create anything of value. And we would all be poorer for that.

Again, Chris is correct. I think anti-copyright people don't have a good sense of what the world was like before copyright law came into being, and what it would be like if there weren't any. The example of modern-day China comes to mind again. Cheap knock-offs outnumber original products, and there is no law -- or will to enforce the law -- to stop it. Imagine if anyone can take your work, reproduce it (perhaps poorly or otherwise changed from the original) and then sell it, without notifying you or giving you a red cent. To anyone who makes money from their intellectual work that's a description of a terrible nightmare.

I'd never have put my work online knowing that anyone could simply surf up, take it and use it for their own purposes, without me having any power to stop them. Copyright makes sure that what happens to my work is my choice. Copyright is not some great inherently-evil force. It's a tool, and it reflects the intention with which it is used.



@Ubersoft: Apologies for mis-citing you!


"In fact, I'm pretty sure you could hold the collected works of the ancient world on a few shelves. Compare that to the vast libraries we have now."

I can see how if you separate stories into eras it could look that way. But here's another perspective:

What if instead of drawing a line between the ancient world and the modern one and comparing, we look at it as a continuum? To me our vast libraries don't look original. They look like a multitude of facets of the same very old stories. Whenever our hyoid bones started to allow complex symbolic communication through speech the oral tradition began. We lived in very low population densities where it took time and effort to find the next group of humans. So the stories all looked very similar, and as culture groups grew and dispersed and diversified because of their environments, the stories changed. Then those diversified culture groups met each other again, found different stories, got inspired, and imitated them or altered their own stories.

Follow that continuum to the present day, where with our population explosion and rampant globalization you don't have to walk three days to meet the next group of people. You just hop on a computer and you can find stories from three thousand miles away. So we have this critical mass of ideas and experiences bouncing and ricocheting and shattering into new facets based on our individual, community, and cultural experience. And that is where I see the potential for originality, if you want to call it that. Historical cultures and modern individuals will even come up with the same idea independently. So who gets dibs? Who's not original? Or are we coming up with the same ideas because it's all ultimately coming from the same source? Not questions I have answers to, but ones I ponder.

I'm going to use Winter Rain (which I enjoyed quite a bit of) and Guts and Sass as examples. Your basic premise in Winter Rain is werewolves (I link for anyone reading who isn't already familiar with the story). Some people trace that back to Romulus and Remus, but I think you can go all the way back to the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples whose stories teach that they learned how to hunt from wolves. Hunter-gatherer stories are full of shapechangers. Look at Coyote, or Raven. To me any use of the werewolf idea derivative. It's just not as direct as someone writing fanfiction of Winter Rain. I don't think derivative is bad. It just is. Werewolf stories are a dime a dozen. What's different, "original" you could say, about Winter Rain is the depth of culture you show us, and the subtlety of how you reveal it, showing and not telling.

Same thing with Guts and Sass. It's got shapeshifters. Giant, megafauna cat shapeshifters. Hardly original. It's got someone from our world zapped to a magical land and going through culture shock. Hardly original. But these ideas speak to a lot of people, otherwise they wouldn't keep getting used. And my goal is to take these ideas that speak to me, and execute them in a way that actually resonates with my experience of the world.

And as for fanfiction- I've read some fanfiction where I wish they had written the original story, because man, they did it better. And sometimes I think the most original and profound execution is found in the characters and worlds we're already familiar with (archetypes). They're already a part of our cultural consciousness, something we can immediately relate to other people about. You don't have to muck around with world building and all the details because they're already there. And sometimes that means you can really go deeper into the actual story and what significance it has to human experience. Not always. There's some really vapid fanfiction out there. But there's proportionally just as much vapid "original" stuff out there too.


"Again, Chris is correct. I think anti-copyright people don't have a good sense of what the world was like before copyright law came into being, and what it would be like if there weren't any. The example of modern-day China comes to mind again."

Sorry, but your argument is that we don't understand?

I've lived in China since college. The average income of the city I was in for the last 2 years was 700 RMB/month. Legitimate copies of imported books usually cost 100-150RMB, even on the low end that's 1/7th of the monthly income. What if a book cost 1/7th of the monthly income in the United States? According to the US Census, the average yearly income is just over $70,000, or about 5800/month. 1/7th of $5,800 is $828.

You tell me how you could justify asking people to pay $828 for a book.

Of course, most people don't get the opportunity to pay that much anyway, since many foreign books are not approved by the censorship committees. Well, I guess it's better for Chinese citizens not to have these books anyway.

While I didn't used to like the idea of people profiting off pirated goods, now I see the necessity. The fact is that these pirates are providing a vital service to people who could not otherwise get access to a large chunk of cultural material.

btw. US census data:


In my non-writing world I find Copyright Law frustrating.

An example would be documents in a National Archive, usually papers or letters, which I wish to consult as part of historical research I am undertaking. In order to view these documents I regularly have to sign and date copyright declarations. The majority of copyright declarations require me to state that I wish to consult the papers as part of private research, will not supply a copy to another person, and that I have not previously been supplied with a copy etc.

If I am conducting the research over a distance, I have to wait until my enquiry is processed and I have returned the original signed copyright declaration to the archivist. An emailed or faxed copy is not acceptable for legal reasons. In general a time consuming exercise but one which I follow because I wish to consult the document, and those are the terms under which it is made available to me.

In my writing world, I wish to keep the copyright of my web fiction even though it is available to read for free. The inspiration for the story may have come from myths, traditional stories, films, television programmes or anything and everything else come to that. However, the version of the story which has my name on it is written and put together exactly how I want it to be, and how I wish it to remain. In that regard it is my story. It may have been someone elses in the past, and will possibly be another persons in the future but the present day version of it belongs to me. I am happy to share it with you but I do not want you to change it or distribute it without my knowledge.

And now I shall prepare to walk the plank... :P