Monday, December 17, 2007

Copyright, Copywrong

Regular readers of CLM know that I often post recordings I've made of other people's poems on What you might not be aware of--but I am--is that this is not legal in the case of poems protected by copyright.

The question is: Is what I do a victimless crime, or is someone losing something as the result of my actions? Not being a malicious fella by nature--honestly, I'm not!--I firmly believe the former to be true. If anything, my recordings, from which I derive no monetary gain whatsoever, might be helping poets' work to reach a broader audience--at no cost to the poets. I also often read other people's poems at live readings and sometimes *gasp* I photocopy a poem to share with others in a poetry discussion group held in a private home.

Some people feel very strongly that copyright should be respected to the nth degree, that a violation is a violation and there are no shades of grey. Fair enough; the law supports them in this belief (except insofar as a judge would probably be a little miffed if asked to adjudicate a case of harmless poem-sharing). But the thing is, copyright law exists, in theory, to protect authors from having their work stolen. A theft involves loss to one person and gain to another, so if there's no loss and no gain, then where is the theft? Posting a recording of a single poem is hardly the same as, say, uploading scans of an entire book.

British versifier Wendy Cope is cheesed because she thinks people sharing her poems with each other over email and other online media is costing her money. Oliver Burkeman thinks she's wrong. So do I. However, I respect her right to be an idiot and the law is technically on her side, so I won't ever post a recording or transcription of a Wendy Cope poem on this blog or anywhere else.

I can, however, point to others who have posted her poems hither and yon. Now wasn't that naughty?


Anonymous said...

"A theft involves loss to one person and gain to another, so if there's no loss and no gain, then where is the theft?"

One might say that you are stealing her right to present her work as she wants to present it. That doesn't seeem like a trivial matter to me.

Fez said...

I agree with anonymous. Also, by presenting an unauthorized version of the work Mr. Wells gains in a number of ways: 1) he adds content to his blog and 2) he associates his name with the name of a better known poet.

Megan said...

I'm a writer, too, although I'm a different type of writer than you are. I don't mind when others present my work, as long as it's clearly credited to me. For example, if the person has pulled a post from my blog, I expect him or her to link back to me.

I do understand why other writers get upset about this, though. We should respect their desire to protect their work.

Zachariah Wells said...

Anonymous: a valid point. But consider the playwright and the screenwriter who, as soon as their work is complete, lose all control of how the work is presented. Even a control freak like Beckett had no control over which actors played his characters on which stages. And he has in recent years had his most explicit instructions discarded by directors. The thing about art is that it's a collaboration, a conversation, between its creator and its viewer/reader/listener. As soon as the creator decides to publish, a significant degree of control is relinquished, first to editors, graphic designers, typographers and printers, then to distributors, wholesalers and retailers (and be aware that some writers complain about 2nd hand bookshops for the same reasons that Cope's moaning about internet piracy). Ask anyone who's published a book if they're entirely satisfied with this; I guarantee you that very few will answer yea.

And as Cope says herself in her opinion piece, poems like hers "have a tendency to run off on their own and detach themselves from the names of their authors." Prior to the printing press and copyright, poems wouldn't only detach themselves from their authors, but authorship itself would be diffuse, a poem changing each time it changed hands (or mouths, as it were). There's an analogous example of this in the links to pirate Cope poems I've provided. Someone has actually taken the trouble to convert a few of her verses into very clever anagrams. This "running off" is a measure of the poem's success as a meme, not of her fans' perfidy.

The bottom line (a metaphor I use because Cope is more concerned with money than artistic control, at least as she's presented her case in the Guardian piece) is that if you want to maintain control over your work's presentation, don't publish it. If someone else presents your work in a well-intentioned manner as a gesture of admiration for no financial gain, accept the compliment.

Fez: these arguments are weak at best, specious at worst. I was talking specifically about financial gain and loss--precisely because these are the terms on which Cope bases her argument. My blog creates zero income for me. If you accept the equation of time=money, then it actually costs me a considerable amount. Also, there are plenty of places I can go for content, including reading my own poems and poems not protected by copyright, which I do sometimes. And when I learn that someone is as stridently opposed to this sort of thing as Cope is, I will, as I said, respect her wishes. Your second argument is just silly. It's not as tho someone is saying "Zachariah Wells and Wendy Cope are both poets of extraordinary wit" or something foolish like that. And it's not like I'm name-dropping ("I was having tea and biscuits with Wendy Cope the other day and she said, 'Zach, you're such a card!'"), which impresses no one and only irritates people anyway. And frequently the poems I read are by poets less well known than I am (e.g. Kenneth Leslie and Charles Bruce) to contemporary readers of verse. Which is saying something.

Megan: the issue of crediting is key. One can't really complain that their intellectual property is stolen if the "thief" doesn't claim it as their own work. Protect work, yes. But my point is that Cope isn't so much protecting her work as alienating her fans for no good reason.

Brian Campbell said...

Copyright really matters where serious $$$ are to be made -- as in theft of song lyrics, music/film recordings, etc. In the music world -- an inside trade secret here -- independent acts rarely get compensated for radio play: it's only the big label acts who can hire lawyers who regularly do. But the independent acts are happy to get any media attention all. As a poet should be happy with Zach: He's actually putting putting himself out to create free PR for the author. He should get a big thank you.

fez said...

I take issue with your statement, "The bottom line.... is that if you want to maintain control over your work's presentation, don't publish it." Publishing one's work does not mean one gives up one's right to control how it is presented. Precisely the opposite is true. Copyright extends the legal right of the author to protect not only the content of a work but also its presentation in the public sphere.

Zachariah Wells said...


I didn't say one "gave up one's right." I said that the fact is that publishing involves the cession of a great deal of control over how a work is presented--unless you typeset, design, edit, publish, manufacture the paper and ink, print, bind, promote, distribute and sell the work yourself. Even then, you'd have to be present any time your work was discussed to correct the "errors" of interpretation made by readers. As yet, there is no way to gain access to the thoughts of a reader as she reads a text to herself, but I guarantee you the work would appear different there than it did in the writer's conception. As soon as a work is shared with someone else, it becomes something else; you don't have to be versed in quantum physics to understand this principle. You can no more control the fate of a poem than you can the fate of a child. Protect, yes, but this is not the same thing as control. And just as you can only protect your child so long, you can only protect your copyright so long. Why does it magically become okay for me to record a poem 50 years and 1 day after the author has died? Oh yes, because that's the law. And the law exists for a reason--and it's not to keep people from talking about and sharing poems, it's to protect writers--and, increasingly, their heirs and executors--from financial loss. And Cope can't possibly demonstrate that she is losing any money in the vast majority of the cases to which she objects.

fez said...

I'm not arguing that one can control how one's published work is perceived by the reading public—how could one? I'm arguing that it is a copyright infringement to take a published work or a piece of a published work and make it publicly available (or even semi-publicly available) without getting the permission of the copyright holder.

Fair dealing does allow for the publishing of excerpts from an already published work for the purposes of reviewing. Further exceptions are available to educational institutions, libraries and museums. I don’t think either one of these avenues is available to blogs that give unrestricted access to members of the general public: see for yourself at

Zachariah Wells said...


I made it plain in my initial post that I understood it to be against the law. I wasn't arguing that it wasn't. I was saying that Wendy Cope's reasons for standing up for her legal rights are perverse, wrongheaded, stupid. I wonder how much money she's spent getting her lawyer to bully internet pirates, a.k.a. Wendy Cope fans.

We're clearly talking about different matters here. I was pointing out the cession of control intrinsic to publication, not in response to Cope, but in response to "anonymous." Your inability/unwillingness to follow this thread of the conversation, and the lengths to which you've gone in order to make it be about something else illustrate my point quite elegantly, don't you think?

To recap: Cope objects to piracy because she thinks she's losing money as a result of it. Burkeman said that she's wrong. I agree with Burkeman. All three parties (Cope, Burkeman, Wells) understand what the law permits and doesn't permit, but thanks for pointing it out for anyone who isn't clear on this.

Fez said...

To recap, then, it is perverse, wrongheaded and stupid of Cope, or anyone else for that matter, to insist on defending their rights as a copyright holder of a published work.

And "being a fan" is a perfectly reasonable, lucid and intelligent defense that may be used by anyone intent on publishing a copyrighted work without permission......

Zachariah Wells said...

From my original post:

"Some people feel very strongly that copyright should be respected to the nth degree, that a violation is a violation and there are no shades of grey."

This clearly applies to you, Fez.

Unfortunately, sometimes the letter and the spirit of the law have an asymptotic relationship to each other. Cope is stupid in this instance because she's wrong about losing income, not because she's standing up for her rights. In another instance (say a bootleg edition of her works being sold), standing up for her rights wouldn't be stupid at all. But thanks for putting words in my mouth. Again.