Many topics, but all interrelated! Information fed to the press by whistle-blowers about the extravagent expenses of M.P.s and others is leading to a political showdown that is generally welcomed, except by those involved. Other press revelations about the phone-tapping of mobile telephones to get spicy details about private matters is more questionable, and there have been some high-profile cases involving plagiarism of established copyright, as well as libel about such press figures as Lord Black and Desmond, owner of the Daily Express and many erotic publications. The whole question now arises: what is it good for us to know, how important is it to protect privacy and how far does intellectual property extend?
Well, for a start, I should say that any individual who opts for a public life has to be fairly squeaky-clean or face up to the consequences of everyone knowing all your private affairs. Otherwise, providing always that you stay within the law, you have a right to privacy. Some, like Berlusconi, don’t seem to give a damn, and some, like Paddy Ashdown some years ago, who admitted having an extra-marital affair, are forgiven for coming clean. In general, if you are in the public eye by your own choice, you should be honest and truthful about everything.
Intellectual property is a matter of degree. Copyright varies in different countries, but in the E.U. it remains for seventy years from the death of an author or musician. It also applies to photographers, but with less certainty and in many cases it is impossible to control because of the ease of downloading and the ubiquity of electronic information. The unit of measurement should be the need of the creative source and a sense of balance. The recent case of Salinger, who brought an action against some who used his characters in a new novel as a sequel to the original, raises many questions. Someone else might have simply complained and ignored it. A Serbian writer wrote a sequel to Waiting For Godot. Beckett declined to meet him, voiced a public regret and let it pass without any other comment. It quickly died away and was forgotten. Quick oblivion is the usual fate of attempts to imitate or cash-in on someone else’s creation. It shows up all the inferiority of the imitator against the original work.
What muddies the waters is the commercial factor, especially when it comes to popular music, where record companies loses their sales or a book is cheaply reprinted in a country without copyright protection and smuggled into the source country, as occasionally happens with bestsellers or expensive reference books that are obviously out of the financial reach of those who want them, although they are available in public libraries. Here is where the state should in some cases consider compensation to the original creative source, but this should not be exaggerated. After all, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, never copyrighted it, thinking he had performed a public service. A drug company did and made millions. There needs to be a balance and a public commission is the only way to accomplish that.
In any case, copyright protection, kept by the creative source for life and a limited time thereafter, should then belong to the state, charging for use but using the money to help new talent thereafter, subsidising recognised new work that cannot yet support itself before it can be sufficiently established. Commercial interests would object, but it would do much to help literature and other arts that are being increasingly starved. Such revenue should also be ring-fenced and not used to help out other public mismanagements.
To sum up: at present it is the legal profession that mainly benefits from the issues raised here. Arbitration by respected figures in the arts and academic world, modestly paid for by the treasury, should make the decisions outside the law courts, but in public. Arguments would arise where a wrong decision is made, usually leading to a reversal. Equity, not greed, should be the aim. Intellectual health is just as important as social and economic health. It is time we realised that.
John Calder 24/7/2009