April 26 was Intellectual Property Day. World Wide! It got right by you, right? That’s understandable, I suppose. It got past President Obama, too. Of course, he has the excuse of being really, really busy these days. And you’ve probably forgotten about WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization of the United Nations. Or maybe you never even heard of it. Well, now you know.
If you were a member of the Authors Guild, as I am, you’d have received an invitation to jot down a list celebrating “the creativity and innovation of the American people.” I scribbled out my list a couple of days ago. Barack Obama got around to jotting down his list today and it includes, among other things, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, and for innovative sports team, the Chicago Bulls — no surprise there.
The theme for Intellectual Property Day this year is Digital Creativity: Culture Reimagined. The Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, observed that the internet provides a great opportunity for creators to interact with their audiences. “Now, with the Internet, the audience has become potentially the whole world. That is an enormous creative opportunity. It’s an enormous cultural opportunity. And it’s an enormous economic opportunity,” That’s certainly true.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that digital media, especially the internet and most especially the World Wide Web, provide a great opportunity for theft of intellectual property.The movement to legitimize theft of intellectual property loves the phrase “Knowledge Wants to be Free!” That’s a great slogan if knowledge refers to such things as the French Language, the location of Los Angeles, the shape of a maple leaf, or the atomic composition of water, but it’s not so smart when it refers to a recently composed song or novel. Our slogan is Stamp Out Starving Writers, Buy Their Books!
Probably the most notorious example of theft of intellectual property is Google’s wholesale copying of copyrighted books. It does this for “the public good.” Which is admirable. But Google also gets revenue which it would not get if it didn’t display the books to get readers to the Google web site — and, of course, the authors of those books get no money at all from Google.
Some people — usually not authors — will point out that being accessible on Google makes the work more likely to sell, and raises the writer’s profile. That’s certainly possible. Writers and other artists sometimes do present their work, or some part of it, free to the public, but as the creator of those works the artist wants to be in charge of what is offered free and when. As Google turns a profit from making the books available online, the writer wants a slice of that, too.
In October 2015, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that Google’s use of the books without compensation was “fair,” because the search engine’s “primary intended beneficiary is the public.” To many of us, the primary intended beneficiary of whatever Google does is Google — that’s the way capitalism works. The public does benefit, but that’s secondary — Google isn’t incorporated to serve the public good.
Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, has pointed out that “Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow’s authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”
Yes, we’re grumpy about that.