Mutiny! [2] – Rethinking Copyright and Enriching the Public Domain

by , under Arts, Books

 

The second big reason I’m choosing to self-publish Mutiny! is to do with copyright issues. One of the things I explore in the book is how messed up ideas of copyright have become, moving far away from the sense in which it was originally intended.

You can read the whole argument below, but, in summary, my plan is to make back (some of) an estimated figure of what the book has cost me to write, and then release it into the public domain – probably with an option for a charitable donation. There’s no way a publisher would accept such a limited copyright, so self-publishing was the best way forward. Here’s why:

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The original copyright laws in the United States were subtitled ‘Something For The Common Benefit.‘ The principle was this: an inventor or innovator was given a limited period of exclusivity, whereby they could bring their new invention to market and make back the money they had risked in its development. However, the period of copyright was ‘stinted’ – given a limit – for the express purpose of enriching the public domain.

Lewis Hyde summed it up well in the simple phrase: private compensation, followed by public benefit. Once the copyright period was up, anyone could use the same ideas that this invention had brought – and then, the hope was, build on them and extend them even further.

The spirit that informed these laws was simple: every innovation in some way builds on what is already out there. Nothing is entirely new. So by making sure that every invention ends up in the public domain, understanding is enriched for everyone and, in principle, everyone benefits as new ideas are forged as people build on and improve what is already freely available in ‘the commons.’

We are currently a very long way from this – and no one sums up the insanity of the position we are in than Mick Jagger. His band, The Rolling Stones, have made incredible amounts of money from their records, all of which are under heavy copyright control. But any cursory listen to the tunes will tell you that they are really songs that have been raided from the blues…and who could ever say they owned the blues? What Jagger and others did (see the video ‘Everything is a Remix’ above) was take from the public domain, and then lock it up and claim it as ‘theirs’ – giving them royalty rights for years to come.

I agree that Jagger et al should be able to make money from their music. But what I totally disagree with is his (successful) campaign to have copyright term on recordings extended to 70 years. 70 years! His reason? So he can keep putting food on the table for his family.

In my view, it should be fair reward for fair labour. So, how long did it take him to write Street Fighting Man?

Well now what can a poor boy do, Except to sing for a rock & roll band? // Cause in sleepy London Town there’s just no place for a street fighting man, no…

We could be generous and say a couple of months, with recording time and all the rest… and perhaps come up with a figure of £20,000. Well…it’s clear he’s made his money back many many times over. And my hunch is that this very over-protective attitude to copyright has actually contributed to the rise of music piracy, because people look at £15 for a tired compilation from a band who are sitting so rich already and think…screw that. (And there are different models – like Records on Ribs, whom I’m love.) What I look at in the book is how pirates are always attempting to break down enclosures, and restore access to ‘the commons’ – or the public domain.

So it struck me as I was writing the book that I wanted to model a different way. I don’t want to be left too out of pocket for the time and resources I’ve stuck into this, but nor am I looking to make bucks forever out of it either. Why? Because the ideas are too important. So, after an appropriate period, when I’ve made something back, I’m going to stick the manuscript in the public domain using a Creative Commons license, in the hope that dissemination of the message of the book is more important than the couple hundred quid I could draw back from it every year or so.

It’s another small way that I’ve tried to give this book on pirates some authentic pirate spirit… I hope you’ll support that.


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  1. Corinne

    Best post I’ve read on copyright and music piracy. Can’t WAIT for the book to come out. Let me know if you need help with US distribution or how I can get a copy here across the pond.