Are authors’ rights a scam?

DOES COPYRIGHT rip off the world's poor? The Branch is tackling the argument head-on in our debate at the House of Commons on Monday 11 February. Here's an introduction - biased, obviously, by the fact that it's written by, er, a writer.

IT SEEMS obvious to writers and photographers that copyright and authors' rights are a simple matter of justice. We are told that we live in a "property-owning democracy", founded on the rights of bakers and candlestick-makers to the fruits of their labour. Different rights, appropriate to those of us who produce non-physical, infinitely copyable "intellectual property", seem logical. And since words and pictures, reporting and art are fundamental ingredients of the culture and of the polity, we need the "moral rights" to be identified and to object to distortion - whereas no-one much minds whether a loaf has a by-line.

But there are vehement arguments ranged against "intellectual property".

Leave aside those deployed by publishers and broadcasters, which don't challenge the concept but cry "mine, all mine". And leave aside the plaint of the student discovering copyright for the first time - "but why can't I copy that? Sez who?"

Some are sincere. Some are argued by respected academics - though the Freelance notes that in the economy of academia writings serve, like peacocks' tails, as advertisement and giving them away has its reward in salary increases (or even mate choice).

The most powerful of these is probably that "intellectual property" serves to make the poor poorer and the rich richer. It's not hard to imagine the feelings of anyone in India on discovering that the chemical company W R Grace claims ownership of various ways of extracting pesticides and fungicides from the bark of the Neem tree behind their home - something their ancestors have been doing for generations.

What Grace claims, though, are patents, not copyright. Patents give ownership of an idea for 17 years after they're granted, in return for making it public. Copyright and authors' rights protect a particular expression - not ideas or facts.

Still, there is a problem with authors' rights, economic inequality and access to important information. If the Statesman in Calcutta offered you 1200 rupees to reprint an article, you might look up the financiers' exchange rate and conclude that £17.31 is a pittance - enough to keep among the poorest of the UK's poor for nearly two days. But the poorest of Calcutta's poor live on 10 rupees a day. So, arguably, at their exchange rate 1200 rupees is nearly £1000. Whatever the real rate is, your work is out of reach to much of the world - as are textbooks.

You don't control the price of textbooks, of course. And that raises another big problem with the debate. That's that it is distorted by our own tendency as journalists to reduce all questions to "a game of two halves", when this one is better represented by a three-cornered pitch contested by users, authors and distributors.


  • The Motion below is one idea on dealing with this - and if you disagree, come to the debate!

Authors' rights, inequality and access to information

This Branch recognises the need for access to essential information - including news reporting - produced by the people according to their abilities and for the people according to their means. It therefore resolves to press for the international campaign for authors' rights to incorporate the principle that journalists, retaining the rights to their work, should accept a license fee for each territory that reflects the real purchasing power of the residents of that territory.

The Branch believes this will expose the fact that it is the distributors, not authors, who are the main obstacle to equitable access to information.

Last modified: 21 January 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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