Musing very lazily about copyright

My wife and I have been married nearly 24 years; a long time ago, when she was pregnant with our first child, I remember her saying “You know something? It’s amazing just how often you notice pregnant women just because you’re thinking about pregnancy”. I’m sure psychologists have a term for the condition, some sort of bias I guess.

That’s the way I feel about copyrights and trade marks right now, in fact that’s the way I feel about intellectual property rights in general. Somehow I’ve become sensitised to noticing stories that have something to do with copyright, ever since my blood began to simmer while reading the nonsensical arguments related to the Harry Potter lexicon lawsuit.

I was on the plane to Shanghai, doing my usual read-and-tear-out rituals with the analog press, and I noticed this story, in the Independent on Sunday, about Len Deighton and the Fleming family. Until I read the article, I had no idea that James Bond films were a completely “separate enterprise to the novels, and Ian Fleming Publications, run by the surviving members of Fleming’s family, has no control over or copyright of the movies.”. Now I’m not entirely sure how accurate that statement is. If there was anyone other than Fleming I would associate with the James Bond films, it’s Cubby Broccoli, and usually Harry Saltzman as well. It appears to me that the guys at the Independent got it wrong: while McClory and Whittingham won the right to share screenplay credits for Thunderball as a result of their lawsuit, that has very little to do with the separation between Bond novels and Bond films. That happened ostensibly because Fleming placed all his book rights in Glidrose/Ian Fleming Publications as early as 1952, and sold all his film rights to Saltzman and Broccoli.

The article itself wasn’t really about this: it was about the apparent heavy-handed (and ultimately successful) attempts by the Fleming family to censor a book called The Battle For Bond. Ironically, it is now due for release at around the same time as Devil May Care, the Sebastian Faulks addition to the Bond stable.

While I was musing about this, wondering about a world where we have such strange copyright arguments, I carried on with my analog read-and-tear sessions. Soon I was ensconced in the New Statesman: my eye was drawn to an article by Becky Hogge, whose blog, machine envy, I read reasonably often; she’s been quiet-ish of late.

This time around it was the now-famous story of Mazz, the knitting blogger who published patterns for Adiposes and Oods on her web site. [Note: If you ever wondered what happened to the byproducts of liposuction, now you know. I guess you wish you’d never asked…].

Mazz, a self-confessed Dr Who fan, designed the patterns herself, and published them for all to use. But she hadn’t allowed for the BBC Worldwide Brand Protection Team, who were on to her immediately. She was politely asked to remove the patterns, which she did. Her case has now been taken up by the Open Rights Group, where Hogge is now the Executive Director.

She makes a fundamental point:

If Mazz’s case were to go to court, the BBC would stand an excellent chance of winning, and Mazz could be bankrupted. Because the law at present makes no distinction between Mazz and somone selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags on a street corner.

I am generally not in favour of any law or regulation which starts from a premise that everyone’s guilty; sadly, much that I see in today’s Intellectual Property regime (I hesitate to call them rights; regime sounds more plausible) looks that way to me. An assumption of guilt that makes laws unworkable.

That’s what I was thinking about when I saw this story: song lyrics from Amy Winehouse included in a third-year Cambridge University English Literature paper on practical criticism; her lyrics were alongside the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. Why ever not? [I remember how chuffed I was at being allowed to read Cat StevensFather and Son as my Elocution exam “poem” in 1971.]

The article also makes references to Bob Dylan and Billie Holliday in the same paper, and to the Bee Gees in an earlier one.

So. I guess we can all look forward to Cliff (of Cliff’s Notes fame, whoever he may be) being sued for copyright; or maybe the person to be sued is the person who sat next to you in class, laboriously writing out sections of prose and lyric as preparation for her exams. [Is there a statute of limitations for copyright breaches?]

This stuff is broken. And it needs to be fixed. Fixed in a way that doesn’t treat every one of us as criminals. Am I right in thinking that in the UK, people who pay for a CD and then import it into iTunes are technically committing a crime? But don’t despair too much, at least every one of the articles I referenced in this post was not hidden behind a paywall, something that just wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.

The Times, They are A-Changing.

3 thoughts on “Musing very lazily about copyright”

  1. JP: Allow me to add another one to the string of stories similar to the Dr Who story above. The Sunday Times, June the 1st, had an excerpt from Jeremy Clarkson’s mother’s book where she describes a similar adventure with Paddington Bear (and then in the magazine, there was a feature on the creator of the Bear).

    And what of Scrabble and Scrabulous? Where does that fit?

  2. It is broken, and in ways which are tragic for the following generations who live under it’s rule. If, as I understand it, the culture in China is to learn calligraphy and art through copying, then innovating, we can anticipate parts of the world which have a saner understanding of the true value of copyright to artistically leapfrog those expending arrogant energy squabbling over historic “Intellectual Property”.

  3. Awesome blog.

    By the way, the psychological term that you referred to in the beginning is called ‘perceptual set’

    “Perceptual set theory stresses the idea of perception as an active process involving selection, inference and interpretation. Perceptual set is a bias or readiness to perceive certain aspects of available sensory data and to ignore others.” – from a educational website

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