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Copyright holders “greedy” say Woodlief, Curtis

In a July 9 Wall Street Journal article, Tony Woodlief argues that current practices for securing permission to reprint copyrighted material are too intricate and costly to survive. He cites his own experience writing a memoir and attempting to secure permission to use copyrighted material as chapter epigraphs:

When I asked to use a single line by songwriter Joe Henry, for example, his record label’s parent company demanded $150 for every 7,500 copies of my book. Assuming I sell enough books to earn back my modest advance, this amounts to roughly 1.5% of my earnings, all for quoting eight words from one of Mr. Henry’s songs.

Woodlief writes that the compromise between rewarding artists for creating original works and allowing the appreciation and dissemination of those works to be as easy and widely available as possible has been historically skewed too far in the former direction.

The copyright thicket is a growing frustration among writers and editors. One editor of a popular literary anthology (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from publishers) confirmed that many publishers pursue illusory short-term profit at the expense of both profit and art. By demanding fees that most people won’t pay, they forsake free advertising for the artists they claim to protect. If restaurants behaved that way, not only would they deny you the right to take home leftovers to your dog, they’d try to charge you for smelling their food when you pass by.

It’s a clever analogy that has only one problem: it’s wrong. The proper analogy would involve someone walking into a restaurant, going up to the pass, taking some food off a plate, walking out and handing the food to a passerby on the street without paying for it, but charging the passerby a fee, which is then pocketed (Woodlief’s “modest advance” is surely combined with a royalty scale in his contract).

This minor inaccuracy, however, does not prevent Richard Curtis from picking up on Woodlief’s line of reasoning and extending it to encompass enhanced e-books that incorporate other media such as video and music:

What’s the problem?  For a recent webinar on the subject I stated it this way: The challenge of clearing rights for enhanced e-books is so dauntingly complex that nothing less than an overhaul of the current antiquated system is necessary if enhanced e-books are not to die aborning.

Curtis goes on to bemoan the process of tracking down permissions for copyrighted material, which he calls “extremely tedious,” as though the relative interest level of the task itself renders it untenable. He suggests that in the digital era, the battle over copyright “is intolerable and will simply have to stop.”

The rationale for this conclusion seems to be that traditional copyright protections make the production of enhanced e-books too complicated, meaning that only “auteurs” who produce, write, edit, direct, and score their own material will be able to create them. The faulty assumption here is that just because a particular technology (i.e. the ability to “mash up” videos, text, music, etc. to produce enhanced e-books) exists, everyone should be able to exploit it without restriction. This is the new digital fundamentalism, and it is deleterious to the notion that artists deserve to be adequately compensated for their artistic output.

It is, however, a notion that is becoming accepted if only through repetition. Jonathan Lethem (in “The Ecstasy of Influence”) and David Shields (in Reality Hunger) have both made the argument that artistic products should be freely available to be recombined, plagiarized, and enhanced as anyone sees fit. The ability to do this is made manifest by the digital tools that are now at our fingertips. Arguing that these digital tools are poisonous to the process of artistic creation is reductive, but so is the notion that the copyright battle currently underway “is intolerable.”