OSCAR WILDE: I wish I’d said that.
FRIEND: You will, Oscar, you will.
When Amazon first displayed my book cover with a “look inside” option, I was horrified to see how much of the content was being “given away” free of charge. I understood it was all for the greater good of Me, and I did support it, but it still made me nervous, despite the “copyright” warnings at the top of the pages. Surely a few lines would have been sufficient? Perhaps I’m ignorant of most readers’ habits, but do people really need to read whole chapters before they decide to buy a book? For me, it seldom takes more than a page; sometimes the very first sentence screams “yes” or “no”. Perhaps, when you’re self-publishing, people take more convincing.
Copyright is dependent on the law about intellectual property. A few months back I consulted a patents lawyer and was told that there is no copyright on ideas. No matter how original the idea, until it has been patented or transformed into some kind of “property” by the addition of skill, time or effort, there is nothing to protect the person who thought it up in the first place. Whatever Oscar posted on his blog would have belonged to Oscar, no matter where he heard it first.
Okay, I’m not making money from this blog, but does that entitle me to display other people’s pictures, artwork, writing, whatever, to public view? I’ve not done that, and I’m not pointing fingers; I’m just wondering. Does blogging work like a non-profit organization? Do we have free use of other people’s ideas just because we are not making money out of them? (That’s assuming no one’s blogging for Oracle or Google.)
Law, like high finance or war, will never make sense to me. Take a haiku, for instance — a single brilliant idea, expressed with a sparse sprinkle of words. Or a cartoon that combines humour, wisdom, you-name-it, in a few pencil strokes. Are these things less precious because they are … well, minimalist? Is protection limited to works of art over a certain size, or a specific number of words?
It seems to me, however you look at it, that the “little” man usually gets screwed. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, any of the “big” names always took credit for what their team of engineers invented. Look at the story of that bloke who invented the intermittent windscreen wiper. He spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of his patent and lost. In the process he lost his wife and family too.
If copyright is mainly to do with the outward show of effort that goes into changing an insubstantial idea into some kind of intellectual property, then we’re saying it’s quantity, not quality that counts. So, no matter how great our compulsion to share, we should actually keep our little treasures pressed between the pages of the book on the bedside table, or in a box under the desk. It’s not safe out here.
Or is it plain selfish to keep things to ourselves? If other people aren’t spreading their own ideas around, maybe we have a duty do it for them. Just imagine the blogs Oscar Wilde would have written. Although certainly most of his comments would not have survived moderation.