James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Internet and the grabbing of writers' work

Thanks to the strike of television and film writers, the public has learned that most of the late-night television hosts are very dull indeed without the people who usually put words in their mouths.

It is good that the strike has generated some discussion among the public on the role of writers.

There's plenty of discussion, too, among the great army of writers who aren't paid enough to buy $3 million Manhattan condos or to ease their stressful lives with three months in rented Tuscany villas.

Generally speaking, although we sympathize greatly with the striking writers – including those who draw extremely high bucks for their work – the talk among writers in my neck of the woods shifts fairly quickly from the strike to the much more pervasive effects of the Internet.

For reasons we do not understand, users of the Net – especially those younger than 40 – generally believe that they have an absolute right to download anything they want and to use it any way they choose, without any recompense whatever for the creators of the material.

As many a news story has shown, the grabbers become screamingly irate when asked to pay for anything, or even to recognize a creator's right to control in any way the material he or she has created.

The origins of such narcissistic behavior is of particular interest to me, but I'll stayed focused for now on the behavior itself.

That mode of behavior now is common among people who unquestionably should know better, and/or who should have more integrity.

You know all those articles you see on line on arts, politics, government, any subject in which you have an interest? Most of them have been cribbed from their original sources, and almost all of the writers have been stiffed; they haven't been paid a nickel for the use of their work on the Internet.

That miserable fact is compounded by the further fact that in most cases – the vast majority of cases – no one even asked permission to use the writer's, musician's, composer's or artist's work.

Many of the articles and essays I have written for and posted on this blog have been picked up by other Web sites. Some of those sites have readerships in the hundreds of thousands, even in the millions; some of them have well-paid staffs, and some sell substantial amounts of advertising.

Only one of the dozen or more outfits that have used my work asked for permission to use it; often, I only know about someone grabbing my work when a reader tells me about it.

Only one other site, a local daily on-line newpaper, tcdailyplanet.net, notifies me when it picks up one of my pieces. I gave the Planet a blanket OK to use my stuff, after it already had published a couple pieces, because it is pretty much a shoestring operation, struggling to fill some of the gaping holes in the coverage of Twin Cities newspapers, television and radio.

(The one site that asked for permission each time it used one of my analysis essays is a Canadian news and commentary site with a very broad readership within that country. I have added that to the long list of reasons I love and respect Canada.)

I know a number of other writers who have had similar experiences, and I've read many articles about how the work of musicians and composers is stolen by Net rats.

The assumption seems to be that we should be grateful for the exposure. Worse, many of the users are hostile to the idea that we might have an interest in the uses to which our work is put. They assume that whatever we do is theirs if they want it.

No thought is given to the fact that composers, musicians, writers and artists make their often meager livings with their work. A computer-addicted banker, say, or retail sales clerk expects to be paid for his or her work (or time, anyway), yet many such people are outraged by the suggestion that they should pay for the work of others.

It's astonishing, really, and at the same time hard to know what can or should be done.

Like most regulations and laws protecting average citizens from economic exploitation, the enforcement of copyright laws for small time producers of original material has all but disappeared since the Corporate Party gained power with the election of Ronald Reagan. The deterioration of regulatory enforcement has greatly accelerated with the growth of the Internet and still more under George W. and his neocons. It's cowboy and rustler time, folks.

When I began producing this blog four years ago, I discovered that a very sick individual had laid claim to the byline I used through the first 44 years of my career as a professional reporter, writer and editor.

The same sicko had grabbed the names of hundreds of other individuals who had built public reputations. Some of those people fought to take back their names; they won, but the effort cost each of them upward of $5,000 – substantially upward in some cases. I couldn't afford that and still can't.

Obviously there's something very wrong with a system that allows some creep to take over another person's name for use on the Internet. There's also something wrong with people grabbing the work of others and using it when and how they choose without compensation and often without crediting the author.

But I don't see anyone fighting to correct either wrong, and with the big money lined up on the side of the grabbers, I'm not holding my breath.

Like most people in my line of work and in more artistic fields, I'll keep doing what I do. If I were still interested in commercial freelance work, my fee now would be somewhere in the range of $75 to $100 an hour, but I quit doing that work a few years ago, and I don't expect to make up the income loss here.

Of course I want my work read, and I'm pleased that my audience has grown steadily, particularly over the past year. I'm happy when people tell me they've emailed some commentary of mine to their friends and other frequent contacts, or to politicians. Thanks, folks; you are most welcome to it.

But if you're going to publish my work on some sort of widely-distributed Web site – especially if you make money from it – ask my permission first. Extend the same courtesy to others who do the real work from which you draw your income. You might even consider paying the writers on whose backs you ride.