Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Donis Saw - Thoughts on Intellectual Property

When I’m in the midst of writing, I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction. I don’t want to be unduly influenced by the style or voice of another author. This is an almost impossible goal, for we are all influenced by those we admire whether we know it or not. I’ve written before that the structure of the stories in in my Alafair Tucker series is heavily influenced by Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. This is true even though the characters, plots, and settings of the two series couldn’t be more different. Yet both have a warm-hearted, tolerant, amateur sleuth, a strong voice (though mine twangs quite a bit more than Peters’), a very strong sense of place, some moral ambiguity, and a little romance on the side. I have never copied a word of Ellis Peters’ books, but I stole her structure.

I blatantly stole my technique from my own mother. My mother was the world’s best letter writer, back when people actually wrote letters to each other. My sibs and I often remarked on her technique, for somehow she managed to write incredibly interesting letters about absolutely nothing. Or so it seemed at first glance. In fact, her descriptions of the details of her life were so vivid that you felt as if you were living it with her. You were there. You were delighted as she that she got her first tomato, or as exasperated at wasting an hour on the telephone with my hypochondriac aunt. This is a life, a real life, that everyone can identify with. Of course, the fact that she was quite wry about the whole thing helped a lot.

At the moment I am reading a fascinating book called What the Dog Saw. by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point. What the Dog Saw is a collection of his essays from the New Yorker. Every one of the essays is riveting. I just finished one last night called “Blowup”, which is about the Challenger disaster and the accident at Three Mile Island. He contends that both disasters were pretty much inevitable, for “we have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded into the fabric of day-to-day life...if the possibility is too much to bear, then our only option is to start thinking about betting rid of things like space shuttles altogether.” This was written in 1996. Shades of BP.

But as usual, I digress. The article I want to mention is entitled “Something Borrowed”, and concerns intellectual property, piracy, and plagiarism. In it, he quotes an example from the book Free Culture, by law professor Lawrence Lessig, which goes like this: If you steal the picnic table from my back yard, that’s theft. But did you steal the good idea I had to buy a picnic table and put it in my back yard?

A couple of weeks ago, I made a trip up to Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale to see Nancy Pickard. I bought a copy of The Virgin of Small Plains because, as I told her, I wanted to study the way she had created such a wonderful opening scene. I want to take her technique and apply it to my own work. Yet there is no way on God’s green earth I would actually use the scene itself. That’s hers.

This raises the question of copyright and the Brave New World of the internet and internet piracy. What if someone, or some organization which shall remain nameless, posts your book online for free download? There are those who believe that all information should be free. Gladwell quotes Lessig who quotes Thomas Jefferson*, who said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

If you create something - a book, a piece of music, a work of art - should it not be available to all? Or even more problematic, if you discover the cure for a disease, should it not be available to anyone who suffers regardless of ability to pay? Yet what incentive does anyone have to create if there is no reward other than praise or satisfaction? Everyone has to make a living, to make her way in this world.

Interestingly enough, this very morning there was an article in my local newspaper, The Arizona Republic, that speaks perfectly about this topic. The title is “Pirated Film Raises Moral Questions on Torture - and Viewing the Copy for Free”, by Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times. Seems a new movie called “Unthinkable”, starting Samuel L. Jackson, has been pirated and is being downloaded for free on the internet at a tremendous rate. It’s one of the most popular movie downloads going. Is this going to ruin the theatrical release of the movie? Or is it fantastic advertising? Producer Cotty Chubb is quoted as saying “We’ve got to come up with a new model because the old one just isn’t working...You just can’t fight against a model where the movie is available for free. People clearly want to download movies online, so it’s time we figured out how to get some money out of it.”

Sound familiar?
*Kindly notice how careful I am about citing my sources.


Vicki Delany said...

Good piece, Donis. Ah, yes the brave new world. But a book or a work of art or piece of music is not an idea. It is as much a physical thing as is a diamond ring, although easier to copy. I could open a rental jewellry business and let you have a diamond ring temporarily but if you try to sell it to someone else or don't bring it back, that's theft. The idea of having a ring rental business is different than the rings themselves.

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