If you haven’t done so already, have a look at Kathryn Hughes article online, The Guardian 21st December, and the 147 comments that flow from it. Her piece has opened up the debate about the piracy of literary work and the Spanish author, Lucia Etxebarria’s response to the theft of her recent work via the Internet. Lucia, an award winning author, states that she will now stop writing and take another job.
Kathryn Hughes article has led to a furious debate about the right of authors to earn a living from their writing. Below are just a few of the comments.
‘I don’t know why writers should expect payment for their work.’ Eques.
‘Most books are written by spivs trying to get rich.’ Ekanus.
‘Once it was publishers who ripped off their authors now it’s their readers.’ Alexander.
‘The Internet is killing the arts as a means of making a living.’ Richard Douglas.
And then there are those addressing Hughes directly.
‘I presume you are paid for your work. Paid for writing. Paid for teaching at UEA. If somebody stole your pay check after you’ve done your work, would that be alright with you?’ Aggieti.
Kathryn Hughes having stated ‘A cheque is nice, but it is never the point.' ’There is something in the tone of Kathryn Hughes article which has clearly riled many of the contributors. For me there is a certain ivory tower unreality expressed throughout the piece, writers taking a ‘congenial job that allows them to carry on writing.’' The ‘congenial job'’ for Kathryn Hughes is teaching on a University creative writing course. She clearly hasn’t met those creators whose less congenial jobs consist of call centre operator, meat packer and administrator. And apparently she has ‘never yet had a student ask about the finances of publishing.'’ Presumably because they naively believe that once they have landed an agent and two book contract their struggle will be over and they, and their talent, will be protected and nurtured by the industry they have joined. If, as she states, ‘£10,000 is the new £50,000 when it comes to advances,’ more than ever students need to be apprised of the financial world they might feel privileged to inhabit, because there will be costs deducted from this miniscule advance not least the (12-15%) to their agent, and £10,000 is not enough income to buy the time an author needs to research and write their next novel, which may well take a year to eighteen months, so how can you build a career? These economics dictate that many more authors will cease writing particularly if after publication their work and their royalties are stolen. If publishers can’t make money authors don’t get paid.
Many of the 147 comments offer visions of bizarre worlds, where creativity of any kind would be free to whoever wants to access it. Creative folk, writers, artists, musicians and designers, don’t apparently have to pay to eat or light and heat their homes. They don’t have families to raise or children who need feeding, clothing and putting through university. You might be interested to know that the average income of a writer in this country is under £12,000 per year and for many that would be only in a good year. Surely no one would want our literary future to go the same way as the music industry, where performance earns the bulk of the income for legendary bands and fresh talent struggles to break through.
Blaming the victim is also evident in some of the 147 comments, Lucia Etxebarria is guilty of being award winning, ‘she can’t possibly need the money…’ ‘she is a successful author…’ as if she is a diva refusing to perform. It reminded me of a twelve year old boy of my acquaintance, his bike was stolen. When he came home his parents rounded on him for carelessness, it took another family member point out that as the chain had been cut their son was the unfortunate victim of a crime, he was shocked and distressed and sympathy was more appropriate response than admonishment. I also wonder if Lucia had much say in the means of publication and distribution of her latest work, or whether her publishers opted against the e-reader format in hoped for protection from the illegal down loaders who are rife in Spain, so the tut-tutting about it being a hardback and not readily available on an e-reader may be misdirected.
Many contributors to this online debate clearly don’t understand the law. I use the word theft, because this is exactly what piracy is. What is not is some egalitarian liberating of the novel to the masses. No. It is a thief stealing the work of another and depriving them of their legitimate income. I can’t verify this, but according to my teenage son, this criminal copying of DVD’s and CD’s in film and music industry are part and parcel of an international racket; a sort of franchise of gangsters and organised crime.
I first came across creative larceny when I worked as a textile designer; the theft of designs was rife, even from within the industry itself. We were warned never to let our portfolio out of our site. One student had taken her work to a client meeting and her designs were taken briefly into the next room to ‘show’ another buyer. In that adjacent room was a notice board, a tripod and camera. In five minutes her entire portfolio had been pinned up and photographed. Recently I noticed startling similarities between the work of the talented printmaker Angie Lewin and a less skilled artist. Some would have you believe that this ‘imitation’ is flattering. Flattering to me is a bank balance that allows me to get the car brakes mended.
Copyright has its origins in the 16th Century. A registration of books began in 1556 so that authors might be offered protection. Today copyright is covered by the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. It covers ‘original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works and in sound recordings, films, broadcasts, cable programs and the typography of published additions.’ A Guide to Copyright and Intellectual Property Law by Calvin Lowe, published by Easyway ISBN 9781847161574
I suggest that all creative writing courses invite a lawyer specialising in copyright and intellectual property law to lecture on copyright infringement, perhaps the author of this very useful guide listed above, Calvin Lowe. Lowe goes on to state that ‘The remedies available to a copyright owner, and also to a licensee, for infringement are those of damages, injunction, delivering up and also possible criminal prosecution.’ If we do not protect our creative industries, which earn this country 7.7 billion a year (and 500 billion on the continent) we as a nation will be the poorer, financially and culturally. In The Sunday Times, Gottfried Honnedfelder, head of the German group representing publishers and booksellers, said an estimated 60% of all German e-books were downloaded from illegal file-sharing websites.
I agree with Kathryn Hughes when she states that the desire to write is ‘an innate drive, an itch that won’t go away.’ But the creative industries must protect themselves, Google must play it's part and the Government should consider its role, if any of us are to write, create and live. Attitudes will have to be changed and this free-for-all seen for what it is the disastrous road to a creative nuclear winter.
Next month – Passing Off – another way of being ripped off. What is it, how it affects authors and the legal remedy.