Google vs. Authors

Thoughts on copyright in the digital age

I remember when my favorite author, Ursula K. Le Guin (I took my last name from one of her books), resigned from the Authors Guild over the Google book settlement. I don’t blame her for doing so.

As a freelance photographer, the ignorance of the purpose and mechanics of copyright has caused me a great deal of stress, and was part of the reason I ultimately gave up on trying to make a living from that profession. Independent writers, photographers, musicians, and others who try to enforce their copyrights are now seen as greedy, thanks to corporations like Disney who have warped the original intent of the law: To encourage artists to create by giving them exclusive rights to their work for a limited period of time. Copyright in the USA originally extended only 14 years.

Many people in the digital age (including in this comment section) don’t comprehend the value of a work that can’t be held in one’s hands. But the worth of a book (or photograph) is not in the ink and paper used to print a physical copy of it. The value comes from the author, who might have taken years or decades to hone the skills needed to create the work. If you don’t think their work is worth the asking price, you don’t have to buy it, but that doesn’t give you permission to just take it, even if another copy can be made freely. Doing so deprives them of income.

People often balk at the idea that downloading a digital book, photo, or song without permission is “theft” or “stealing.” I’m not interested in promoting the prison-industrial complex by jailing people who download digital works illegally. But I do want people to respect the right of creators to control the dissemination of their own works.

I’m old enough to remember a time before the Internet was widely available, when “sharing” might mean making a mix tape of your favorite music to give to a friend or sweetie. Now “sharing” means millions of strangers downloading terabytes of content they did not pay for, from artists who did not consent to having their work “shared” in such a manner.

Some artists, including myself, have taken to using Creative Commons. What’s not widely understood is that Creative Commons is a license, not a substitute for copyright. It’s not equivalent to releasing a work into the public domain. Most CC licenses have stipulations that the author be credited for their work. Sadly, this is often ignored.

I think it’s great if creators want to share their work freely, but that should be their choice. I don’t think there should be an inherent right for everyone to have full, immediate, free access to any creative work of their choosing. I do think that there should be an inherent right to free basic food, clothing, and shelter, even though those things exist in the physical world and cannot be freely copied. But that’s a topic for another essay…