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On copyright

Opinions on Internet and public domain

In "Following Cerebus," Febuary 2005

Note: Dave Sim, the comic-book auteur, announced that he was going to put his multi-volume work "Cerebus" into the public domain after his death. The editors of the zine "Following Cerebus," Craig Miller and John Thorne, assembled a symposium of writers and artists to discuss Sim and the issue of copyright. I have no use for Sim, but I did and do feel a lot of gratitude to Miller and Thorne, for reasons which will quickly become obvious, so when they asked me to contribute, I immediately agreed and sent them the following rather self-aggrandizing squib.

I can't work up any outrage about Disney's claim to own Mickey Mouse for all eternity. This is partly a personal prejudice: I can't stand Mickey (I'm a lifelong Bugs Bunny man) and don't care if he lives out another millenium enslaved to an evil gigantor mega-conglomerate. But also I have to be honest: the real reason I can't knock Disney for being copyright fascists is that they're only doing what most writers I know would do themselves, if only they had access to zillions of dollars and all the lawyers they could buy.

The arts crowd is supposed to be hardcore lefty, but not even the most depraved ultra-capitalist is as obsessed with money and property as your average writer. Put any assortment of freelancers in a room together, and all they'll talk about is how they're getting ripped off. Who owes them, who cheated them, who stole their work, who changed it, who wrecked it: they're like a gathering of saints trying to top each other with their martyrdoms.

You'd think that they're so relentless about this misery because they actually do have to put up with so much crap. T.S. Eliot once said that poetry is "a mug's game," and that's true for any kind of writing. Publications usually treat you shabbily; the money they pay you is chump change; and your heartfelt work invariably goes out in the world and vanishes without a trace. Waiting for the response to something you've published is like dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. So if you become a jerk about royalties and copyright, that's because it's about the only way you have to reclaim a little self-respect.

But then the few writers who actually do get successful -- by which I mean big, cosmic, American-superstar successful - ought to become a little more relaxed about their status. Alas, not so: they get even worse. There are famous writers who'd rather not have an audience at all, if it means putting up with the slightest hint of disrespect. A certain enormously successful sci-fi writer recently trademarked his own name, to protect it from being misused by unauthorized people (evidently we must add a reverent TM every time we mention him, so let's call him Tharlan Mellison); he also sued AOL just to make sure that none of his precious copyrighted words would ever appear on the Web without his permission. Sound excessive? Try this: Samuel Beckett, who won the goddamn Nobel Prize for Literature, got so angry at a Dutch theatrical company for tampering with the sacred text of "Waiting for Godot" that he forbid everyone in the entire country of the Netherlands from performing any of his plays ever again. Take that, you impertinent whippersnappers! The Disney Corporation's litigiousness is strictly amateur hour, compared with the grandeur of a dissed writer's spite.

In this situation, Dave Sim seems like the soul of sweet reason, for deciding that Cerebus would go into the public domain immediately after his death. (I should add that this is the only instance I know of where Dave Sim has been reasonable about anything -- as his contributions to this magazine unpleasantly demonstrate.) Why keep up this maniacal drive to retain complete ownership of your work? Why not go in the other direction and give up control -- even the phantom control you like to think you'll still be able to exert after you've gone? Why not toss Cerebus out into the ocean of folk memory, alongside Paul Bunyan and King Arthur, and see whether he sinks or swims on his own? Isn't that the real test of the quality of your work? I don't know if people are going to want to remember a bad-tempered aardvark who got his start as a lousy parody of Conan the Barbarian -- but if they do, then that's a greater tribute to Sim than any lawyer-enforced licensing agreement ever could be.

If I can talk about my experience in this illustrious company: after being a freelance writer for twenty years, all I've learned is how murky the whole issue of copyright and control of one's work really is. For instance, I've had work of mine reprinted on the net without my permission - stolen, if you like. But the thief wasn't making any money off of it. He just happened to hate something I'd published - it was a column about The X-Files -- and he posted it to an X-Files newsgroup so that other fans of the show could sneer at me. OK, fair enough: if you write a nasty review, you should be prepared for readers to be nasty back.

But the sequel was more complicated. The post caught the attention of Craig Miller and John Thorne, the names above the masthead in the magazine you're reading right now. They'd never heard of me, but they called me up out of the blue and asked to reprint the column in Spectrum magazine - and they paid me for it. They also asked to see what else I'd published about TV, and over the next couple of years they reprinted a dozen or so of my columns, and paid me for all of them. How much? Well, put it this way: not enough for a trip to Paris, but enough for a couple of really nice dinners when I was there.

So now when I think about that Usenet thief, I don't know really what he deserves: a rap upside the head for reprinting my work without asking me, or an agent's commission for finding me such a pleasant new deal. Maybe both. All I can say for sure is that I do very much like getting money for what I write - in fact, I insist on it. But I also like having people read my work, no matter how they've come upon it, whether they've paid for it or not. And I don't want to have to choose between having control and having readers.

Here's the compromise I've worked out for myself -- which I offer not only to boost my own ego, but also for whatever insight it might give into how one particular writer manages this whole question of copyright and ownership of one's work. It happens that sometime in the near future, the publisher Sherwin Beach Press will be bringing out a book of mine called "Saving His Life." The book is a work of art - I mean the physical book, and I can say this without false modesty because I had absolutely nothing to do with the design. It's boxed, it's beautifully illustrated, it's printed on hand-made paper in a hand-sewn binding, and it'll set you back $400. It's perfect for your shopping list if you're rich and insane. Buy a couple for your friends.

As for my actual text: well, as Raymond Chandler said under similar circumstances, "I assume from the imprint of a distinguished publisher that I need not be sickeningly humble." I'm proud of it; it's as honest as I could make it, it represents whatever I'd managed to learn up to that point about being a writer and being a human being. I want you to read it. So if you go to my website leesandlin.com, you can download the complete text for free. You'll also find the complete texts of two other short books of mine, along with a bunch of other stuff I've published, including some of the TV columns that Craig and John liked. Download them, print them, pass them on, let me know if you liked them - and if you didn't, just remember what you paid for them. But as far as I'm concerned, once you've read them, then you've already paid me back.