Copyright Laws: Corporate Greed, Legal Farce

Feb 19, 2020

The operation of Copyright Laws amounts to a giant con, a legal farce and an opportunity for corporate greed.

At first sight it appears as though copyright laws exist to protect writers’ intellectual property, as in providing modest revenue from someone who quotes from lines of their poetry or songs. In effect, the operation of these laws amounts to a giant con, a legal farce and an opportunity for corporate greed.

In a forthcoming book, I am using lines from poets’ pictures of humanity to contrast with accounts of state sponsored cruelties, but copyright laws make this difficult if not impossible. Better the cruelties continue unhindered by critique.

In Australia, the UK and the US, themaze which must be navigated in order to obtain copyright permissions discourages the use of lines from poets in order to elaborate an argument. Without permission, poets’ lines cannot be quoted. Alternatively, you can resort to paraphrasing what a poet’s message might have been. Wordsworth, Shelley, W B Yeats would turn in their graves, though I don’t have to seek permission from their estates as they have been dead for over seventy years.

Corporate Greed

Ten years ago, the principle of fair dealing or fair usage allowed quotes at no cost if an author was not using a substantial part of a poem. Since that time, governments seem to have been fascinated by the chance to control what can be written. In consequence, lawyers, public servants, even compliant NGOs, have joined the ‘permission/permission chorus’. But they do not seem to be aware that they have unleashed a license for free market greed.

I’ll give the worst examples. The rights to the works of a wonderful Australian Indigenous poet have allegedly been bought by a large US publishing company based in New York. To quote even a few lines from a poem published in Australia in 1970, the company seeks $400:00 US. When complaining that this demand is extortionate, the company’s copyright permissions officer says this Indigenous poet’s work is ‘one of the company’s premium content’, hence their refusal to reduce the price.

In a greedy world, where generosity is considered absurd, I must be out of step to have felt even slightly outraged by a US company cashing in on the works of an Australian Aboriginal poet ?

Another example concerns my attempt to quote one verse from an Irish poet whose rights are owned by a London literary agency. They asked for one hundred pounds sterling. Following my complaint that such a price is extortionate, they reduced the demand to seventy-five pounds.

Copyright laws in Australia and the UK do say that the cost of licenses is ‘a matter of trying to negotiate terms you are comfortable with’, but the bargaining enables companies to concoct costs which they think they can get away with. Think of a number, double it, add the number you first thought of.

The Legal Administrative Farce

Rules of copyright say, ‘the fact that a copyright owner does not respond does not mean that you can go ahead and use the material.’ But if faced with companies and agents who do not respond, who display no courtesy, let alone a touch of professionalism, a writer is left in no man’s land. As a sop to such frustration, the big companies may eventually send a circular that responses to copyright requests take at least eight weeks. Two months later nothing.

In Australia, the UK and the US, the small print of copyright laws is peppered with ambiguities as to what constitutes ‘fair dealing.’ In interpreting ‘degree of usage’, lawyers can play games and are entitled to give impressions of what is fair. Quotes used must be judged by what an honest person would consider ‘fair’, but copyright lawyers and representatives of copyright permission agencies seem to collude with a constipated process. In response to my requests for guidance, I’m told the contents of pamphlets such as ‘Permission: Do I need it?’ or ‘Fair Dealing: What can I use without Permission?’ Quoting from such material passes for legal advice.

Legal ambiguity is coupled to bureaucratic absurdity. A labyrinth has been created, such that even the most persistent long-distance problem solver would be discouraged or lost. The admin game, ‘Find us if you can’, is world-wide but Australia has its versions. If seeking copyright from an owner who has died, ‘Contact the Probate Division of the Supreme Court in the State or Territory where the author died’. Then, with an offer of more material for an ironic light opera, ‘If copyright is owned by an Australian company which has gone out of business, you can get information from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.’

A Few Responses from Human Beings

Luckily, a few literary agents, representatives from the Australian Society of Authors and an editor from one large publishing company behave like human beings not robots. But the accident of coming across someone who is professional, unselfish and helpful also underlines the extent of the greedy absurdities of the copyright culture. Literary agents and publishers’ employees who respond like human beings have understood the obstacles to easy communication. Repeated, online responses from copyright online permissions machines have included, ‘Wrong password’, ‘Email not recognized’, ‘You have run out of time’, ‘Try www…’. Frustrated by this suffocating online fog, I wrote to one New York company, ‘Please, is it possible to speak with a human being?’ Out of the fog came a permissions editor at a desk in Manhattan, ‘How can I help you?’

That editor cut through the copyright bureaucracy and helped at a fraction of the cost charged by other publishers, at least the ones who reply. I received a similar generous response from a Sydney based literary agent who owns the rights to the work of the late Les Murray. I have been so reassured by this agent’s helpfulness that for a moment I forgot the months of frustration caused by corporate greed, by refusals to respond and even by publishers’ apparent ignorance of the culture they sustain.

Over the past ten years, even in democracies, authoritarianism, secrecy, surveillance and a preoccupation with states’ powers have become dominant trends in government, police and political conduct. Only the freedom to move, speak and write can hinder these dangerous trends.

Copyright laws were, justifiably, crafted in order to compensate writers and artists for their work, but have contributed to a stifling, control culture. Those who operate that culture say that freedom to quote, in my case from poets, depends on compliance with rules which operate in the interests of a dead person, an invisible agent, a disinterested employee or a powerful company. Help !

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus Univ. of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize

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