Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What's Right, What's Copied

So far in my time as a wordguy, I've signed three contracts in the course of getting my work to publication - even if only one of those works has been published at this point. Every time I read one over, I count myself as thankful I'm not active in some part of the organized entertainment industry: music, for instance, or comics. Because at the core of all those contracts I've signed is something simple, yet precious - aside from the right of the purchaser to publish the story in a given time period and in a given manner, all rights and copyrights remain with me. I mean, that's only fair, isn't it? I was the one who sweated over it, I was the one who built it out of nothing, they should stick with me, right?

The sad thing seems to be that writing, where it's pretty much just between the author and the publisher, seems to be one of the only creative arenas where this is in fact the case. Look at the music industry, where artists who've signed with a record label see the rights for their songs go to the label and not themselves. Look at comics, in some respects - on the one hand, you can't expect a new writer coming in to have any control over stories written about Superman or the Incredible Hulk, seeing as how those are already corporate properties, if you're a comics writer or artist working with pretty much anyone except Image, you can forget about having any intrinsic right to what you produce. It's parasitism taken to a grand scale; a lot of these big companies don't produce anything insofar as they enable things to be produced, by financing studio time and advertising budgets and things like that.

But that's not incompatible with creator-owned material. There's no reason I can think of that a music label couldn't allow artists to retain ownership of their own works while reserving the exclusive right to publish them - except for, y'know, the will to control and to own.

What's more, what we've got today is in some ways better than what came before; back in the day, even the sort of writing I do fell into this trap. Plenty of pulp authors had to sell the rights to their work entirely; I'm not entirely sure if my 1930s issues of Wonder Stories did the same, but if they did, it's ridiculous in another way - if their copyrights were renewed on first expiry, the tales on those crumbling and yellowed pages will not begin entering the public domain until the 2030s. 2030s!

It's all about control. A property owned by one of the parasite conglomerates can be distorted, spindled, reticulated, or whatever else is necessary to repackage it in a new box and reap fresh dollars. If the rights remain with the person who actually created it, well, that makes things complicated: there would have to be negotiations. A two-way street might have to be paved, and in the end, the answer might nevertheless be "no." That sort of uncertainty ain't good for business, is it?

The worst thing is that I wouldn't be surprised for this model to re-emerge, at least to some degree, in the writing field. The rapidly maturing ebook market is set to shake things up in the next few years - if some company comes across what they think might be the next Harry Potter in its beginning stages, who's to say they might not just buy the idea outright in the hope it could be enriching - for them - down the line?

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