I get up in the morning, go through all the updated blogs of my friends, and make a list of facts and ideas that I can use for a post of my own. Sometimes, it works. At other times, it is frustrating, especially during blogging contest season, which in the recent past has been almost once a month. It is terrible to wake up and find everyone writing the same stuff. One of the good ones (in terms of copying) has been the recent ideas and outline for a real love story. This has everything that one can ask for. Many of the ideas are great, they are all supposed to be factual. A treasure-house for diligent copiers like me. Okay, I lie. Some of the ideas are great.
What about copyright and social boycott, you ask? That is there, but I cannot be any more socially boycotted than I already am, given my views on all things dear to most people, and as far as copyright goes, well, it goes. Here is a publishing house and a bloggers platform telling you to share your facts and ideas on your blog, taking care only to leave the climax out. Where is the problem if I use them? And for better or worse, I don’t need a lot of help with a climax. (Note to self: Post that love story before it shows up as someone else’s idea.)
The concept of copyright comes from the 17th century when printing books began. The word means exactly what has made it the subject of schoolboy blogger jokes - the right to copy. However, it implies the right to make copies of your own work, and the mechanism that protects you from others copying your work. The concept of copyright is closely tied in with that of capitalism and individual property rights. The decades preceding the industrial revolution is when, like earth, air and water, individual works like paintings and songs and sculpture became the possession of the person who came up with it rather than a collective social property. Therefore, while the core text of the Bhagavad Gita or The Bible is in the public domain, most translations or versions with commentary are not, and since we tend to use English versions and neither of the originals of these two classics were written in English, chances are that anything we quote from them comes under copyright laws somewhere or the other. It might interest you to know that even the song, Happy Birthday is under copyright, and if you are going to include it in any work that makes you money, be ready to get a notice from the copyright holder.
While copyright laws differ from country to country, the globally accepted norm is the Berne Convention (for the protection of literary and artistic works) which was formulated 130 years ago. This has, of course, been worked upon several times and in several countries in the last century. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty of 1996 together with the Berne Convention offer the most comprehensive protection that a creative person can ask for with regard to making copies of his own work. It may interest readers to know that the UK signed the Berne convention in 1887 but failed to incorporate much of it in its own laws till 1988, and the United States disagreed with the terms of the Convention till 1988, because of which another global standard, the Universal Copyright Convention had to be adopted in 1952.
But dry facts aside, the idea of protecting your creations comes from the fact that somewhere down the line, two things happened. The first was a need to be identified as the author and to be protected against someone else claiming your work as their own, and the second, of course, was to protect your potential to earn – money, goodwill, fame, invitations to launches, lunches and seminars – through your creative work. The arts were never a trade, and from the beginning of civilization, man has pursued his muse either at the cost of personal material welfare or through patronage, usually from the state or from the wealthier, or more enlightened members of society. (Please email me if you want my bank account details, all patronage will be thankfully acknowledged in the form of haikus and tankas detailing your kind and gentle nature. If your patronage is generous enough, I might even enable right click copying on this blog!) As we have evolved into consumers and shopkeepers and emerging markets rather than civilizations and human beings, this has become all the more important. While Kabir might not have had a problem, Chetan Bhagat would surely not take kindly to his right to make copies being trampled upon. Of course, it is very difficult for most people to write like him, but that is not the point.
Let me just lay down the facts as they appear to me, so that we can all go home happy. Creative output, such as song, praise, plays, novels, sculptures, paintings, cinema, cave art - basically express our understanding of our world, and are created to evoke emotions, to share our wonder and joy, or perhaps sorrow, at our collective human experience. For centuries, they were public domain, and the cost of producing them or sustaining the artist was born either by society as a whole (Cacofonix the Bard, Manmohan Singh) or by the state or by the wealthy (Mozart, Da Vinci, Tansen). The wandering minstrel sang of the mysticity of sex and death and god, filling the air and our hearts with gladness and wonder, and society took care of him and his boshtumi by providing them a place to live, grain to eat, and an older model of playstation for the kids. This was when people believed that mother earth cannot be owned, that its bounties were for all to share, and that a society was only as rich as its ability to bring welfare to all.
With the industrial revolution and the ability to quickly and easily make copies, the right of the author became easy to corrupt and benefit from. So now, individuals wishing to enjoy song, cinema or sculpture has to pay for it himself, and the money largely goes towards the cost of making that work available. Minus taxes to the state for allowing all of this to happen, of course. Minus the cost of advertising and marketing, of course. And minus the mark-ups that a complex distribution system demands, of course. The state is out of the picture, since it has to maintain armies, find ways to grow vegetables on other planets, and spend years arguing about things till it is time for a new government anyway, and any money it has to promote the arts has to first go to the wives and brother-in-laws of those in power who claim to be “artists” of various sorts. Magic is an art too, as is conning, aren’t they? So the state, as noted, is out of the picture. Vanish.
So let's see, I am a poet, and I write, let's say Haikus (I don’t but then neither do a lot of people) out of my gladness, and hope that it will gladden you too. In order to write Haikus, I need to sustain myself. I am not a fool, so I know there is no Ministry of Silly Walks that will pay me to keep Haiku’ing. So I write them, and give them to a publisher, who publishes them, and then gives the books to a distributor, and the publisher and distributor then pay for advertising it and putting it in book stores, and then book store sells it. The book store keeps its cut and its cost of running the store, pays the rest to the distributor, who keeps his cut and the cost of distributing and pays the rest to the publisher, who keeps… you get the picture. After a cycle of several months, I have not only made some money through my Haiku but have actually helped sustain a whole lot of others through my Haiku writing. This is called the right to make copies.
Copyright has traditionally been violated and disputed down the ages. There are more than three dozen identified authors of the worlds largest selling book, and even Shakespeare is believed to have fallen prey to those who found it easier to pass of their work as his. Even The Life of Pi can be found in older works by other authors. And now, thanks to digital communications and an always-on social media, it is easier and quicker to find facts and ideas that you can copy. If the content has been put out with the disclaimer that it is factual and just an idea, hell, all the better. All a poet can do is warn. I don't see Wilfred Owen or Pablo suing me. That is the essence of creativity.
I see all of these, including this post, as small steps to put back in the public domain that which was meant to be collective property, our wisdom, our grief, our faith, our emotions, our pain, our wonderment, and our joys. By our insistence of building a commercial model for creative output, all we have done is put a price to that which is priceless. How does the artist sustain himself or herself? How do we address the issue of authorship when it is violated? These are question that society has to figure out for itself. Question that involve assessing whether we have the maturity to give art the importance it deserves, whether we can rise above the high art and popular art differentiation, and whether we realize that our value as a civilization (God’s greatest creation for some) is intrinsically linked to how we value creativity itself.
I am giving away three large five-star nougat bars to the first three people (Indian residents only) who can identify where this post is borrowed from. Given the fact that the majority of readers here are creative artists themselves, I also look forward to a stimulating discussion, one where I might just play truant.