Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 12th Aug, 2013

Fair use is theft, except when it's me using other people's work

Dear Linda Jaivin,

In your article for the Sydney Morning Herald on the 31st of July 2013, you say fair use is "theft" in all but name.

And on your blog you have mentioned Bruce Sterling's piece "The Ecuadorian Library". In fact, you've quoted directly from it.

So, is that fair use? Or are you going to hand yourself in for copyright theft now?

Now, you theoretically don't make any money from quoting Bruce, so maybe you think that because it's not a commercial use that therefore you're not "stealing". But I don't think you can have it both ways.

If we follow your argument - that any use that has some kind of commercial gain is, in fact, theft - then it simply becomes a question of what "commercial gain" is. And that's where lawyers come in.

Because you've obviously gained from referencing a quotation from Shakespeare in your article title. You're probably gained by mentioning songs or stories in your books - also copyrighted. And where does that end? Should you be paying the people who wrote the thesaurus every time you look up a synonym? Should you be paying the authors whose work you cribbed on the Russo-Japanese war? Should you be paying Bruce Sterling a proportion of your royalties, as he's clearly influenced your thinking?

You're also presenting a slippery slope that cannot help anyone. An academic quotes your book? Clearly they must pay! Someone satirises it? Clearly they must pay! A student quotes from it? Well, clearly they must pay in proportion to how much they quoted - after all, some people might read your book and not use a thing from it, and others quote entire sections! Someone mentions it on a radio show? They should pay for the privilege! Someone sells your book second-hand? Well, obviously you should get a cut too!

You're also a successful author, having published eight books and translated more. So it's kind of convenient for you to say, now, that you should be paid more for all that work. It doesn't help the new author, struggling to make a living and trying to read and learn from everything they can.

And, let's face it, the spectre of some dread international conglomerate ripping off your work and not giving you any money for it is kind of the wrong way around, isn't it? After all, you've basically been published by them - big printing companies who control distribution, decide who is going to be released where and when, and decide the royalties they will offer you and how they'll pay. They don't need to steal other people's work, they've got authors begging to be published sending them manuscripts all the time. Pretending that you're threatened by hungry companies desperate to rip your work off, and ignoring the one that's already only paying you trivial amounts compared to their own salaries and bonuses, is not a very good distraction.

I have nothing against you personally. I only think that your logic in defending a system that offers a pittance to the people who actually write the words we read, and in turn demand that no-one use your work without paying for it, while at the same time using other people's work without paying for it, seems to be mixed up.



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