Do We Need Copyright? Part V of a Review of Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From

Gesa Stedman takes Tim Parks to task again and explores the intricacies of copyright with him. While she applauds how Parks widens the perspective, she is sceptical whether copyright should be considered unnecessary.

Copyright has a history. It is not god-given, or EU-invented and therefore sacrosanct. Tim Parks makes this clear straight away in his essay “Does Copyright Matter?”. It was invented and made to suit certain purposes. If it has a history, it is subject to change in the future and its uses are open to debate. By reminding the readers of the abolition of slavery, Parks also reminds them of the contingent nature of any laws which govern opposing parties’ interests. He goes on to explain that copyright laws will only be found in societies which protect the individual against the collective. In less individual-oriented societies, this kind of protection is considered less important. He then goes on to criticise as naïve the idea that there are “just” rewards for artists, writers, or musicians. Since works of art can receive either no recognition or a lot, tiny sales or huge ones, and that says nothing about their quality, there can be no justice in rewarding the producers of the works.

What we are talking about, more brutally, is preventing other people from making money from my work without paying me a tribute, because my work belongs to me. It’s mine. What we are talking about is ownership and control. (25)

As usual, Parks has hit the nail on the head – it is about ownership and control. Copyright law is part of capitalism. And since the art market is a market, a market for books, paintings, pieces of music etc., the laws of ownership apply. After 70 years, however, “society finally denies that intellectual property is the same as physical property. My heirs can own my house for ever, but at a certain point the product of my mind will be turned over to the public domain.” (25)

The duration of copyright is arbitrary, as Parks rightly states. And perhaps he is also right to wonder whether quoting two lines from, say T.S. Eliot, should really cost 200 GBP? Infringing on copyright law goes back as far as its history, and has been exacerbated in recent years with the advent of new (internet) technology which allows sophisticated pirating.

The problem lies on the one hand in the orientation towards revenue and marketability – copyright law, as explained earlier, is part of capitalism and therefore orients artists towards thinking about the marketable value of their work, not necessarily its artistic merit.

Copyright gives the writer a considerable financial incentive and locks his work into the world of money; each book becomes a lottery ticket. Huge sales will mean a huge income. Copyright thus encourages a novelist to direct his work not to his immediate peer group, those whose approval he most craves, but to the widest possible audience in possession of the price of a paperback.

On the one hand, then, by conceding copyright society declares that it holds individual creativity in high esteem – every member of society can dream of one day benefiting from copyright, of transforming genius into money – but by the same token it draws the author into a bourgeois mentality where writing is a job with an income; the writer now has an investment in stable markets and attentive policing. (27)

This attitude, according to Parks, leads to a lack of innovativeness and daring in writers: “it is remarkable how little creative writing today is truly revolutionary, in the sense of seeking a profoundly different model for society.” (27)

Writers are unwilling to question the status quo because they have become part of it, argues Parks. That may be indeed the case. Whether it is all down to copyright law perhaps is another matter. Copyright law existed before the market took over and commercialisation and boring crime novels, chick lit, erotica, cross-over titles etc. hit the book world. A historical perspective requires historical accuracy and that is an aspect that I miss in this particular essay. There must, at least in the past have therefore been other reasons for writing than the expectancy of large sums of money rolling in, based on copyright law. Parks actually questions this for contemporary writers:

Without the prospect of money, the author would have to think very hard about what he really wants to write and how he plans to engage with an eventual community of readers whose appreciation, if not cash, must suffice to give him the gratification and encouragement he seeks. In short, you wouldn’t launch blindly into a major novel, as so many young writers do, simply because novels are the form that command attention and promise you an income. (29)

The writers I know personally don’t write for money. That doesn’t mean they don’t pay attention to income and copyright. But that is not the prime reason they write. They write because they feel that is the best way to express themselves, because they have discovered that writing is what they need to do. Mostly, their income is based on other activities, sometimes related to writing (such as teaching creative writing), sometimes their day job is in some quite different field. But none of the writers I value and happen to know personally write only for the market. Some of them actually do the exact opposite!

In many of his essays, Parks targets the audience-oriented, market-driven writers of bestsellers or those aspiring to become such writers. That he finds them annoying and exhausting is obvious, and understandable. But there are others.

To return to copyright issues: yes, they are historically contingent and could therefore be reformed or even abolished. Perhaps it is time to revise copyright law in view of technological change. And of course any law also reflects the values of a given society. But as a person involved not only in bookish things but also in academic affairs where plagiarism is rife, upholding the right to intellectual property seems no bad thing. It might be a good idea to uncouple copyright from revenue, if that is technically possible, so as to ensure that the intellectual right of a producer is protected but without giving her or him the automatic expectancy of revenue and this forcing artists to produce market-conform works of art or choosing only genres which seem to generate money. In that way, society would still emphasize the individual’s status as the artist, as the producer of a work of art, and the right of that individual to put her or his name to the work of art. At the same time, writers and artists would be free to produce what they like, in the genre they chose for artistic rather than monetary reasons, without thinking only of revenue and money.

Well, perhaps not. Imagining the literary field outside capitalism and without copyright law as an essential part of it is a mind-boggling task!

Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books. London: Penguin Random House 2014.