Saturday, March 22, 2008

Who owns a metaphor? Or, when is a battlefield a soccer pitch?

(Where am I? Lost in mixed metaphors.)

For the most part, I'm mentally and physically away from the copyright debate for the next week. I'm occupying quiet corners of Manhattan, pretending to be someone else and writing about it. Occasionally, there will be martinis.

But as I leave my identity behind for awhile, I need to clarify one small point about what "John Degen" thinks.

Over at, Darryl Moore has blogged about my opinions. Not all that surprisingly, I find little I recognize in his description of what I believe.

Referring to a letter I published in the Hill Times last fall, Moore writes:

The part of this letter that really bothered me was the very last sentence. "In all the arguments about large corporate interests at war with consumers on the field of copyright, it is often forgotten that creators own the field." This, in a nut shell, exemplifies the core philosophical differences between John Degen and myself.

Moore goes on to explain that I'm wrong about creators owning the field, because the field belongs to all of us, it contains our culture, etc. He then writes:

...when artists are back in the dressing room making their latest great work, that work undoubtedly belongs to them. But when they bring it out onto the field to share, society gets to claim some ownership of it.

Dressing room? My battle metaphor has turned into a sports metaphor. It continues:

Creators are players like the rest of us and they need to learn to share the ball so that we will all find the game that much more enjoyable.

Let's start over.

If we are discussing our shared culture, our creative commons, and we want to see it as a large soccer game, is there another player on the pitch who does more sharing of the ball than the creator? The creator makes a work, and then boots it out there for everyone to kick around. It might even be said, in Darryl's version of what I mean, that the creator owns the ball. How incredibly generous of the creator, then, to let everyone else have a go at it.

Now, my actual, original metaphor made the rules and conventions of copyright into a battlefield, on which consumers and large corporations are currently fighting. When I wrote "it is often forgotten that creators own the field," I had in my mind the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, one of the foundational agreements in modern copyright law. This agreement creates a landscape of rules and provisions -- a field, if you will -- the purpose of which is to, what? Well, it's right there in the title -- its purpose is to protect literary and artistic works.

Our great and generous creative commons exists so that we may all have a vibrant and shared culture. I will be celebrating that shared culture with every word I write this coming week. Hopefully, not all that long from now, I will be booting my new novel out onto Darryl's metaphorical soccer pitch, and he can kick it around all he wants.

Copyright, on the other hand, exists primarily and fundamentally to offer limited moral and economic protections to creators. The landscape of copyright was fenced off and granted to creators. It belongs to creators. And we don't play soccer on it.

But here's the most important point -- and one that often seems to be lost when people claim to know what I believe about copyright. When I think of a creator, I am not thinking only about professional writers or artists. It just so happens I administer the Professional Writers Association of Canada, and advocate for professional writers' rights from my Executive Director's chair, so confusion on this point is understandable.

Still, when I write about the creator's rights under copyright, I am writing about everyone's rights under copyright. Because everybody, at one point or another in their life, will create a literary or artistic work. And when they do, that work will and should be protected by copyright. That does not mean the work will stayed fenced in, in the dressing room, at the concession stand, on the streetcar on the way to the stadium, or whatever other metaphor you want to use. The work, having entered our culture, belongs to our culture. But certain rights to the work belong to its creator -- to you, the creator. To everyone, the creators.

Good for us all.


Infringer said...

So go figure. John prefers to see a bloody battlefield where I'd prefer to see a competitive battles of wit and reason.

Of course nothing in his post does anything to contradict the core philosophical difference between John and myself.

I see society and our shared culture and the central element. The field. John sees only what the artists contribute to it. The ball. And, according to him, we should be grateful for whatever access we are given to the ball. "How incredibly generous of the creator, then, to let everyone else have a go at it."

In fact John, it is the other way around. The artist should feel grateful that society appreciates his work enough that they want to use it. What ever privilege through copyright is granted to the artist is a gift from us. Don't ever forget that. As we have given great privileges in the past which have served our purpose, we can also take them away again if it serves our purpose. My argument has been that it would serve societies interests to now reduce the privileges granted through copyright.

You say you speak for all of us as creators "Because everybody, at one point or another in their life, will create a literary or artistic work." but you can't do that. When one creator's interests of the past conflict with another creators interests of the present or the future you have to pick sides. You in general pick the side of the past creators, wanting to give them as much control as possible over how their works are used and interpreted in the future. That is fine given your philosophy and position, but don't presume that you can speak in the interests of all creators. Nobody can do that, and you and I have chosen different armies to align ourselves with on this bloody battlefield of copyright.

John said...


Please stop trying to figure out what I've written as you write your response. This approach is not working for you.

Is it possible to unintentionally mix and misunderstand metaphors the way you've done here and in your original article? More to the point, how is anyone supposed to respect your opinion of what writers do and deserve, when you don't even take the time to read properly?

Infringer said...

John, once again you fail to address the substance of the post, and again attack the writer. What does it matter if it is a field of battle or a field of sport? Your metaphor works (or doesn't) either way.

My point which you did not address is that wherever these activities are taking place, and whatever those activities are it is society that owns it all! Any rights granted through copyright to artists are arbitrary and at the whim of society. Also, you cannot possibly speak for the interests of all creators as those interests often come into conflict and you must then choose sides.

Anonymous said...

"Well, it's right there in the title -- its purpose is to protect literary and artistic works"

Rather than the literary and artistic workers, which seems to be how you read it, John.

Anonymous said...

"Copyright, on the other hand, exists primarily and fundamentally to offer limited moral and economic protections to creators."

That's the fundamental disagreement in a nutshell. To my mind, this isn't the purpose at all, but merely a means to the end - getting as many works out there into our culture as possible. The US constitution says this explicitly "To promote the progress of science and the useful arts..." (quoted from memory, so apologies if it's not quite right).

Nothing there about "To ensure creators can make a fair income from their work".

John said...


You and Infringer sure are fond of nutshells. Coincidence?

You are welcome to make a theoretical separation between artistic works and the workers who create them, but in the actual cultural economy -- the one addressed, in part, by copyright law -- our society tends to understand and respect the connection. The Berne Convention certainly understands and respects it, as the rights granted to protect the works are aimed at the "authors" of the works.

Your response -- like the letter you wrote to the Hill Times in response to my letter -- shows me that you either still don't understand the original metaphor or, like Darryl Moore, you don't believe it's all that important for you to understand the argument with which you disagree. Either way, there seems to be little chance for meaningful dialogue between us when my opinions are not allowed to stand as written.

Anonymous said...

There are definitely differences in the way you'd approach things when you're focussed on the works and when you're focussed on the workers.

For example, if you're focussed on the worker, then you'd want to ensure that they get as much reward as possible for any one work. On the other hand, if you are more interested in the works, you'd want to ensure that the worker was encouraged to go ahead and create another work. That might mean ensuring that they don't make so much money from their first work that they feel they can happily retire (I feel like I can hear John chuckling as I write that).