The trouble with copyright

So, the wonderful online speculative fiction magazine, Strange Horizons, has very admirably decided to offer the option to all of its past contributors to license their work under a Creative Commons license. If you don’t know what this is, then click on the link for detailed information, but in brief: it’s a way for authors to get around the ludicrously restrictive copyright laws that only benefit a handful of corporations (cough, Disney, cough) and allow their work to be used for certain purposes that they define. The one that I chose for my story Shard of Glass is here:

Creative Commons License

Shard of Glass by
Alaya Dawn Johnson is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

I like it because it lets people fool around with my idea and do what they like with it, so long as they don’t do it commercially and they offer their work under the same happy, hippie-free-love license. Now, wouldn’t the world be a better place if all creative people decided to get over themselves and offer their work like this? I’ll still get paid if someone wants to use my work in a commercial way (i.e. Spielberg still has to call), but for everything else, I say: enjoy yourselves. Not as though I think there will be some mad rush to make the literary equivalent of the Grey Album now that I have released my story’s bounty to the world or anything, but I like the principle. My other stories aren’t online, but I’m thinking that I should attempt to figure out how to apply this license to them also. I’d even like to put it on my novel, but I figure I should at least wait until it comes out.

The Creative Commons people have, in addition, increased my esteem of them beyond measure by also offering what they call a Founder’s Copyright— essentially, a limited copyright that gives you exclusive rights for 14 or 28 years, instead of the (truly absurd) 95 that’s on the books right now (yeah, thanks Mickey). Apparently, the “Founding Fathers” thought that 28 years was more than enough time to get the benefits of private ownership of your work, and would probably wonder who the hell a copyright that lasts for 70 years after the author’s death benefits.

I’ve heard stories of anthologists who have made valiant attempts to bring some obscure author’s work to public attention by republishing it, but were stymied by the (astonishingly dumb) family members, who felt that 10 or 20 cents per word just couldn’t be good enough, got horrible advice from the neighborhood property lawyer, and demanded some outlandish fee that absolutely no one would give them, all on the bizarre idea that the next person calling them for permission would have to be a Hollywood exec. I’m sorry, but I make no promises as to the intelligence (or market savvy) of my progeny, and I don’t want them to have the sole responsibility of managing my writing when I’m dead. It’s very important to me that my work be in the public domain by the time I’m gone, and probably for a while before that. After all, why shouldn’t it be? Yes, I might be the originator of a story, but I know perfectly well that once other people read it, it becomes a little part of them as well. It’s presumptuous of me, I think, to claim that I should have the rights to whatever is done with it for now and forever. Hell, I write fanfiction, so it would be a little hypocritical of me to hate all derivative works.

You want to know when I’ll be sure I’ve “arrived?” For some, it’s the expensive car, or the invitation to the swank party, or the front page New York Times Book review, or getting mentioned on Page 6. For me, it’s having fanfic written for my work. The very idea flabbergasts me. There is no greater compliment than having a group of people so inspired and excited by something you’ve created that they want to spend the hours and hours necessary to play in it more. I personally think JK Rowling must be the happiest writer alive (though, of course, she must have her own peculiar stresses). Maybe because of that, I don’t want a stupid, corporate-lobbied, draconian copyright law getting in the way of what these hypothetical future fans might want to create. I want my novels to have creative commons licenses, and I want the whole copyright to go away at a proper, reasonable time. Like 14 or 28 years.

The Creative Commons people say that they aren’t interested in lobbying congress to change the law. But I think that someone ought to. 95 years doesn’t benefit anyone except Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, and I think it’s high time they let us have our way with them, don’t you?