Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part I: Why Copyright is Important

Copyright basics for the Internet age.

Too often the debate over creative control tends to the extremes. At one pole is a vision of total control –€” a world in which every last use of a work is regulated and in which “€œall rights reserved”€ (and then some) is the norm. At the other end is a vision of anarchy –€” a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation. Balance, compromise, and moderation –€” once the driving forces of a copyright system that valued innovation and protection equally –€” have become endangered species.

Creative Commons is working to revive them. We use private rights to create public goods: creative works set free for certain uses. Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian. We work to offer creators a best-of-both-worlds way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them –€” to declare “some rights reserved.”€

This is the text you can find on the History page of the Creative Commons Web site. It explains, in part, why Creative Commons was formed and what it is trying to do.

In this three-article series, I’ll explain what copyright means to me and how I use Creative Commons on my Web site and blog to protect my work.

Copyright Is Important

CopyrightAs a professional freelance writer, I live in the first world: one where every last use of a work is regulated. Sure, I write computer books for a living. But did you know that some of my book contracts lay out the movie rights for my work? Movie rights for a computer how-to book? Are they kidding?

Sadly, they’re not. They really do take into consideration every last possible use of a work — even if that use is not very likely.

Copyright is important not only to me but to my publishers. Each book contract I sign lays down the rules of who owns the work and who has the right to market, promote, and sell it. We work together to come up with a contract that both parties are happy with, then work together to produce and sell the work so we can both make money. In general, this works pretty well. I write, my books appear in stores, and I get paid. My publisher produces my work, puts it in stores, and gets paid. We’re happy.

How Copyright Infringement Hurts Everyone

When things go wrong is when people take our work — because it really is both mine and my publisher’s together — and illegally reproduce it, either by hard-copy or digital means, and share it with others. This reduces the potential paying market for our product. How many copies of a book do you think we could sell if someone else was giving them away for free to anyone who wanted them?

And when copyright infringement like that exists and becomes widespread, books don’t sell well enough to be worthwhile to produce. Publishers don’t make enough money on certain titles, so they publisher fewer books or, worse yet, go out of business and stop publishing books altogether. Writers find it harder and harder to get book contracts, so they don’t write as much — or they stop writing.

The result: there are fewer resources out there for people who want to learn new things with the assistance of a knowledgeable author and a book they can read and refer to over and over.

All because enough people thought that our work should be distributed for free.

This hit home recently when I discovered a Web site that was distributing, free of charge, two of my books in electronic format. But it wasn’t just my books they were distributing. It was over 300 different computer how-to books — some of which were only a few months old — and tutorial DVDs and even software. The site’s slogan was “Because knowledge should be free.”

What they don’t understand is that their actions are taking away the livelihood of professional writers who work hard to write those books. Authors are people who rely on the income from books sold to survive and thrive and care for their families. Every book illegally distributed rather than sold is money from a writer’s pocket.

You’ve heard the phrase “starving writers,” haven’t you? (I never did like the idea, myself.) Think about that the next time you illegally download a pirated eBook or photocopy pages of a library book to share with your friends.

What’s Next

In the next part of this series, I’ll explain how Creative Commons helps writers and bloggers license their Internet work for use by others.

In the meantime, let’s get a discussion going. Got some thoughts about copyright protection and piracy? Use the Comments link or form for this post to share them.

2 thoughts on “Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part I: Why Copyright is Important

  1. Having your work ripped off like that is terrible. Do your digital sales warrant the increased risk posed by piracy?

    Your post got me thinking about the difference in my (confused) mind between the physical product and the digital one. I have a copy of your Visual Start book and wouldn’t hesitate to say to someone – ‘Here, read this, it’s a great introduction to WordPress’. If someone offered to buy it from me I wouldn’t think it ‘wrong’ and yet I wouldn’t put a digital copy on my blog and encourage others to read it there!

    The handing-on of a book is an intimate act involving me, my discrimination, my care for someone else in particular, wanting to benefit them ‘Here, this helped me, may it help you too’. Offering a digital copy seems more like offering a generalized resource and loses that one-on-one human interaction. But this offers me no clear cut answer, only a ‘feel’ as to what is right and wrong.

    How do you feel about a physical copy of your book being passed around a whole group – mooched maybe? Why does it seem less reprehensible (to me!) to ‘pass on’ a book than it does a digital file?

    Always enjoy reading your blog (loved the picture of your neighbours concreted posts in your driveway as it made me feel less put upon by our wet summer here in Wales!)


  2. I don’t feel bothered by my books being passed around to readers. In fact, each time a new book of mine comes out, I donate a copy to my local library. I’ve even let books go out on Bookmooch (a Web site that exists solely to share books). I think sharing books is a good way for people with limited resources to get access to information without violating copyright law. But when people cross that fine line with electronic copies of the book, putting them online for anyone to take, the single copy that they started with is multiplied into many, many more, cutting into the book’s profitability. This hurts both me and my publisher financially.

    And your original question about eBooks has got me thinking about it some more. Enough for another blog post. Stay tuned.

What do you think?