As both publishers and booksellers we get a lot of books (or to be frank, “books”) that people would like us either to publish or sell. The quality varies (understatement), but what I find most astonishing is that sometimes I open a book to find that it seems….familiar. There’s a fine line between “influenced by” and “flagrant breach of copyright”, and it’s one I obviously see differently to the person who sent me a near-perfect rendition of a Spike Milligan poem. Copyright has been a controversial issue in the sphere of printed books – the Ian McEwan debacle and the numerous Harry Potter trials spring to mind – but social media and self-publishing has knotted it into a morass of confusion.
People have written whole books on this subject, but it strikes me that a number of salient points seem clear:
1. Whilst there is no copyright on ideas, as soon as you write something down, it’s yours, and no one else should be able to use it without permission;
2. Unless someone else has already written it down, obviously;
3. In which case: if you didn’t know that someone else had written it first, then tough, the copyright still isn’t yours;
4. There are some exceptions, such as fair use;
5. If you are going to send me a picture book with really, really ugly illustrations, at least make sure you aren’t sullying Spike Milligan’s poetry in the process.
The reaction to Judith Griggs and Cooks Source has been extraordinarily vitriolic and I think it’s partly because of the unspoken recognition that writing is both personal and powerful. I am neither a novelist nor poet, but even in this blog post I am writing down part of myself – this is what I think, and my writing testifies to that. No one else should be able to steal it, or twist my words into something I didn’t intend. Authors have spurred political movements; made and destroyed figureheads; put into words that feeling you have always had but never knew how to describe, and the law acknowledges their achievement, courage and right to be compensated when their work is reproduced by someone else. Copyright recognises that writing has value, and for that, I am grateful.