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On Copyright: How to Protect Your (C) (and Why You Shouldn’t)

This week we’re talking about getting paid for your writing, and yesterday I mentioned that copyright was originally created to promote creative expression — that basically the government established an artificial monopoly to an intangible good, and they back it up with (legal) force.

They earnestly believed a system like that would encourage young people considering possible career options to have faith that pursuing an art could be a viable job opportunity. Is that what it’s done for you?

For me, personally, copyright has never created an incentive to produce art. Copyright is a nuisance — an obligation on the artist, just like all the marketing and sales stuff we’ve got to do these days, instead of focusing on creative expression.

I want  to talk about that today. Really these are the same topics we discussed yesterday, but I want to address the darker side of them: what it costs you to get paid by copyright.

Defending your Copyright

I talked about it a little yesterday, but even though you automatically own the copyright to any work you create as soon as you create it, that ownership can be a pretty flimsy thing. If you don’t choose to go through the paperwork and filing fees to register your work with the Copyright Office, it can be incredibly difficult to establish your rights in court.

Worse than that…if you’re not careful, it’s incredibly easy to lose your rights, even to a work that you have registered. The same laws that grant artists ownership of their intellectual property also place the burden on the artists to protect those rights.

If people start misappropriating your work and you don’t stop them, it can be ruled that your works have entered the public domain. I’ve heard that given as an explanation for what happened with Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes (last paragraph).

So for you to benefit from your copyright at all (including just long enough to sell it off to a publisher), you’re personally obligated to police any use of your material — a full-time job in itself — and take on the costs and difficulties of preventing anyone using your work. That means, at the very least, sending off a Cease and Desist letter, and in all likelihood taking someone to court to force compliance.

That’s usually someone who admired your work enough to consider it worth sharing, and you’re stuck sending lawyers and federal agents to punish them for it. If you don’t, though, you could easily lose your right to ever get paid for that product (sort of).

Oh, and even when you do commit to defending your work, and you invest in a good lawyer and a fancy suit for your court dates, there are fair use exceptions to muddy the water. The problem is that they’re vague, meaning neither you nor the infringer ever really knows if a use is allowed until you’ve both spent the time and money to hash it out in a court case.

Limitations of Copyright

Litigating for pay isn’t a terribly artistic process, and even if we liked the idea, most artists couldn’t afford it. That’s where the publishers come in, because they do have the resources to do all the policing and lawyering.

You get to sell them your copyright (and with it, all your control over the work and most of the profits from selling it), and they’ll make sure it pays off. They’re the ones who’ve convinced our government to enact brutally restrictive intellectual property laws in the U. S. (and to force other countries around the world to follow suit), because copyright does pay them to do what they want to do.

What they do isn’t “create art,” though. Copyright props up a warehousing and distribution industry and (of course) a significant portion of the legal industry, but it’s hard to see how copyright “encourages young people to pursue an art” by forcing them to put roofs over the heads of some poor starving lawyers.

And, in the end, all copyright does is keep people from seeing your creation, discussing it, and being inspired by it. The only thing it’s even capable of doing is restricting your audience.

There Are Alternatives

But that’s how it has to be, right? I mean, they invented copyright for a reason. And as the corporate suits and the lawyers have been reminding us lately, you can’t compete with free.

There are alternatives, though. There are other ways to do business as a writer (or any other kind of artist). We’re going to talk about them throughout the month of July.

Intrigued? Come back next week for a discussion of the public domain, what it is, and how you can use the public domain in your writing.

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