Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Copywrongs and copyrights

Posted by metaphorical on 7 December 2006

In a surprisingly gratifying turn of events, the story about Ian McEwan is spinning back into control. The NY Times has a good article about it.

Novelists Defend One of Their Own Against a Plagiarism Charge

LONDON, Dec. 6 — A basic indignation underlies the letters of support gathered here on behalf of the novelist Ian McEwan, who has been accused of plagiarizing from a historical memoir in his novel “Atonement.” If he can be so easily charged with lifting someone else’s work on the basis of such scant evidence, the other authors declare, than what about them?

The letters — from heavyweights like Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and, in an unusual gesture for a man who shuns publicity, Thomas Pynchon — were published here on Wednesday in The Daily Telegraph, which reported that a campaign of sorts had arisen in defense of Mr. McEwan. Most of the writers said that they were intimately familiar with what Mr. McEwan had done, having done the same thing themselves.

Because linking to the Times is often of only limited utility, here’s the UK Telegraph’s excellent take on it. Let’s also note that Lev Grossman, among others had a nice jeremiad about it last week in Time, even before the recent letter-writing campaign.

Of course it’s hard not to think about the controversies in the music world concerning the same problem of borrowingfor example attempts at extending older works, as Alice Randall did in The Wind Done Gone or Danger Mouse’s brilliant Grey Album, which literally swirled, like vanilla fudge ice cream, Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album.

The definitive study of this is Siva Vaidhyanathan 2001 book Copyrights and Copywrongs. The whole book is remarkably available here and his views are nicely summarized in an interview here.

Back in February 2002, in an article that (of course) borrowed heavilly from the ideas of Vaidhyanathan, Jessica Litman, and others, I wrote (in an article that ironically is not available for free):

“We can insist on individually compensating the hundreds of rights holders whose work is included in even a two-minute rock video, or the thousands for a full-length movie, which will stymie the creativity of the next generation just as lawsuits over sampling in the early 1990s defused the rap music revolution. Or we can work toward a more rational system, one that recognizes the necessary role played by the primordial soup of mass culture, out of which all new cultural works emerge.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Pynchon, Updike, Atwood, Amis, Smith, and Ishiguro (and the IEEE, which owns my 2002 article) went on to write letters to their publishers and Congress saying they thought we should go back to the Copyright Act’s original deal of 28 years (with an additional 28 years if you file for it)? It wouldn’t have solved Danger Mouse’s problem, but it would have been all that Alice Randall needed. It would be a start.

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