Waxing lexical. Or maybe I mean waning.

I’ve kept an eye on the J.K.Rowling lexicon lawsuit for some time now. Initially I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Then, as I realised it was serious, I thought it best to park it at the back of my mind, I had more important things to do. I guess I considered the lawsuit frivolous.

But it set me thinking. I remember having a similar reaction when I first heard of the concept of “image rights” a decade or two ago. Surely some things are in the commons, surely some things are well within a fair use definition. It is one thing for a celebrity to negotiate payment for the right to publish photographs taken in an exclusive closed-doors invite-only event (as celebrities are wont to do with weddings). It is another thing altogether to assert rights when photographed walking in the street.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, lexicons and dictionaries and indices all fall into my concept of fair use. If I take the Rowling thinking to an extreme, what is Technorati? In fact what is Google?

I’m no expert on copyright, I’m no expert on intellectual property rights. But events like the Rowling lawsuit help me realise that there’s a lot of work to be done in improving the current state of these rights.

Incidentally, I found it enjoyable to read Neil Gaiman on this subject here and here and here. He makes the transformational copyright argument really well, particularly with the example of the Abi Sutherland poem. He also lays out the derivative works arguments in ways that can mean something to laymen. What is equally fascinating is the comment thread for these posts. If you’re interested, do take a read.

2 thoughts on “Waxing lexical. Or maybe I mean waning.”

  1. Too true, there is an awful lot of work to be done. The is a big gap between what people commonly understand, and the legal reality. And the legal reality itself is pretty grey, and very varied by country (e.g. big differences in this area between UK and France). Larry Lessig’s TED talk is very interesting on this subject (Google will take you straight there).

  2. Let me muddy these gray waters even further. JK Rowling, essentially, is copyrighting language. She saying that these specific words – like muggles – aren’t part of language but are her invention and can’t be used except with her permission. But let’s see her put the toothpaste back in the tube.

    Here I’m going out on a limb and relying on highly suspect memory but – when I did a short stint in political advocacy the major issue was laws surrounding genetically modified crops. If farmers bought genetically modified seeds, planted them, harvested the crop, saved some and replanted it the following year, they would have to pay royalties on the entire second generation of crops.

    That is copyrighting life.

    In both cases, it’s a fool’s errand to try to enforce these rights. Seeds will germinate in the spring, regardless of patent laws. Word muggle and the idea it represents, now that it’s been released into the ecosystem of language, belongs to all of us, no matter how many lawsuits are brought.

Let me know what you think

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