This past week, I helped wrap up a semester’s worth of work in the Writing for Integrity symposium with the Poynter Institute. Not surprisingly, we came away with more questions. Integrity, plagiarism, cheating are complex issues when it comes to definitions and solutions. One perfect example has come up in my book, Feeling Lucky. I have to get rid of two movie quotes or get permission to use them. It’s a copyright thing – sort of.
Copyright means what it says. I own my book, and my publisher has the right to create copies. You can buy a copy, but you can’t make copies and you can’t sell them.
The principle was much clearer pre-ebook era. Even now, if I buy a paperback mystery and pass it on to my mother who passes it on until it eventually ends up in a Friends of the Library sale, all I have done is taken the one copy I’ve bought and given it to another. I haven’t created another. I actually let go of my copy so someone else can enjoy it.
As an instructor, I use bits and pieces of people’s work all the time, usually just a link or a quote. This is allowed under Fair Use provisions. Anything more, even making copies and handing them out in class, is not allowed, especially if I’m reimbursed for said copies. I also have to be very careful to credit the source and not commit plagiarism, to say this is so-and-so’s example instead of just here’s an example. Fair Use provisions are what allow reviewers to quote a line or two in a review.
In school, we also routinely use others’ work as a basis or part of academic scholarship. You always state existing ideas as a starting place to launch your counter or additional idea. For example, you might quote a particular poet if you’re discussing his or her style of poetry. You might be able to parody under Fair Use as well, but creative work is much harder to justify.
The impulse to share and to participate becomes a big part of the “copying” question. When you read a book, you invest it with your own understanding and appreciation. It becomes part of your experience. You take some possession of it, not legally perhaps but in fact. And that what writers want. Some openly solicit it. When we say did you like it? did you like it? we want to know if you shared our ideas and experience. So why the fuss then if I share some little part – just a line or two – that fostered this connection?
Today, making copies is actually hard to avoid. By the time I take a picture and post it on the internet, I’ve got a copy in my camera, in my computer, and online. Some blatantly copy and resell others’ work, not understanding or respecting the authors’ time and effort. It’s easy to see why many copyright statements require permission, restricting any use but in a review.
I’ve run into this stringent response before making quilts. There are several large sports and entertainment organizations who licensed fabric for one-time only, personal use. Not having a lawyer or wanting to resort to one, I didn’t debate First Sale doctrine and refused jobs. The customer was left to embrace the organization and make it their own in officially sanctioned, mass produced items.
So the “copying” question develops a marketing aspect. It’s much easier for me to rewrite then get permission. But it’s not that easy to become a household name, for a book, movie, or song to become a common reference in popular culture. If you go to all the effort and actually get that lucky, how far do you go to protect and control your brand? Is there a distinction between creating buzz and becoming part of the literature? When May the Fourth becomes as well know as the Fourth of July, should you, can you, try to erase yourself from the written record? Check out Amazon’s solution.