Wednesday, December 12, 2007

All Rights Reserved

Via Harriet this article by Wendy Cope in The Guardian, where she rails against the free availability of poetry - especially her poems - on the internet:

Often the offending websites are the responsibility of well-meaning enthusiasts, who have no idea that they are breaking the law. Neither do the people I meet every now and then who say: "I liked your poem so much that I sent copies of it to all my friends." I'm supposed to be pleased. I've learned to smile and say thank you and point out very politely that, strictly speaking, they shouldn't have done that. They should have told their friends to buy the book. Or bought it for them.

I sympathise, a little bit. Someone's written something that's taken them many years to put together and they most certainly don't want the whole made available to everyone without benefiting from the exchange in any way.

On the other hand, everyone who writes wants to be read and remembered, wants to 'enter the language', as A.E.Stallings says on Harriet:

I am sure she is legally correct. But at the same time an internet chat board or blog or list serv is not an anthology out to make money. It is a conversation. Is not dialogue impoverished without recourse to quotation? Without being well-versed? Does not such quotation, when properly credited as to its source, constitute fair use? (though I imagine that is a legal concept that varies from country to country...) Imagine what it would do to poetry dialogue on the web if we hesitated to use real life examples.

People talk about poetry because they love it. To make every discussion of poetry pay-per-view is to make it invisible. And god knows, it's seen little enough as it is. Surely it can only benefit the poet to have her work where it's available?

I'd like to agree with Stalling when she says that if people read a few poems they like, they're more likely to buy the book. Then I remember the woman who wanted to 'go through my book' and return it, instead of buying it; I'm reminded of the Paterson book I xeroxed and sent to Equivocal because not only was a second copy of the book not available, it would have been unaffordable to buy two copies when the one could be xeroxed and shared.

Does someone lose out by it? It depends on what you call loss. Sure, someone did not make a few bucks on a sale. But they had one more person - perhaps more - who read their poetry.

Wendy Cope might be indignant at the money she might be losing but it seems frankly stupid to worry about who makes a few bucks once you're dead. Unless we're willing to put the production of art on an exact and equal footing with other kinds of products, it seems futile to think of it's worth only in monetary terms.

Non omnes moriar and all that.


Falstaff said...

You know, I read that piece this afternoon and all I could think was "I wish someone would consider stealing my poems".

I suspect Stallings is probably right for the vast majority of poets publishing today. My guess is that the relationship between book sales and being quoted in public is probably positive for quite a while, and turns negative only when you get to a level of popularity where a significant proportion of the population would buy your book anyway. And even there I'm not sure the relationship is negative - it may just be flat.

At any rate, it's only a real issue for the half a dozen poets in the world who can actually afford to live off the sales of their books. For the vast majority I'd think poetry is not a significant source of income (and may even be a loss-making proposition in the purely monetary sense) anyway so the marginal utility of lost income is probably much less than the incremental joy of knowing that someone else actually likes your work.

Space Bar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Space Bar said...

Falstaff: :D I know!

While it's true that almost no poet alive is making a decent living out of the sales from their work, it is also the case that people assume that because you're writing poetry, you must be either unworldly or just so pathetically happy to have someone, anyone, read your work that you'll make it available for nothing. You're expected to participate in Festivals that have large sponsors for no fee, because, presumably you are being done a favour.

Under the circs, I can see why someone like Cope would want to defend her right to benefit from the use of her work; I just think, in the long run, it's self-defeating.

km said...

What? Poets aren't rich and happy?

??! said...

if anything, poets for whom their work is not a significant source of income should be the ones most upset, because it'd mean losing what little they do get. Which in turn, could lead to a loss of motivation to keep writing, whereas getting (enough) money for that book could probably give them the option to quite a day-job and just write.

This is tricky though - I think the balance should be that quoting bits of poems are ok, but not putting up the whole thing. You get popular, and you get to hook somebody into buying the book.

Falstaff said...

space bar: Fair enough, and I'd say there's certainly scope for compensation by Festival organizers, though I suspect that the assumption that you're "pathetically happy to have someone, anyone, read your work that you'll make it available for nothing" is frequently correct.

??!: Not really. Making a living off the sale of poetry books is pretty much a pipe dream. Just do the math - how many books are you going to turn out in a decade - two? three? four if you're really prolific? How many copies of each are you going to need to sell to make a living off them? We're talking 50,000 copies here. Of poetry. I don't know who can make those kind of numbers.

Plus I'm not sure you'd want to make a living off the sale of your books even if you could. Quitting your day-job just to write sounds nice, but being financially dependent on the sales of your book would mean you'd be terribly fettered to popular taste. It'd be very hard to do anything experimental or challenging knowing that you need to sell those 50,000 copies.

And I can't seriously imagine anyone being motivated to write poetry for the money, or conversely, losing motivation to write because they don't make enough off sales. If you get to the point where you're publishing your first book, you've probably already spent at least half a dozen years writing, with no income at all - years moreover where you've collected hundreds of rejection slips *sound bitter personal note* - if that hasn't made you give up on poetry I doubt making, say, 20% less off your books is going to.

??! said...

ok, fair enough. I don't really expect people to give up jobs and write poems, and still make it comfortably.

But I still hold - if you are only selling, say, 800 copies of your work after managing to get a deal after all those rejection notes (aside...hugs to you), then you'd be pretty pissed if somebody put them up and that resulted in 200 potential buyers not buying the book. Ok, so it wouldn't dent your income tragically, but it could potentially make a difference in whether you get another deal. In a market segment where (as you point out) sales aren't that great, a 20% difference sounds pretty crucial.

Personally though, I'm caught down the middle of this debate. While I love to see more accessibility to stuff online (for free), I do understand and sympathise with people who're trying to make a living out of it - books, music, whathaveyou.

Cheshire Cat said...

Not surprising that money exercises Wendy Cope - she'll be forgotten soon, and probably knows it. She must take what is of value in this world; for her, there is no other.

True poets, of course, write not to make a living, but in vain pursuit of eternal life

blackmamba said...

as usual OT...

I can't be the only one who read the name as Stallman instead of Stallings?!

Because, if you were to just replace the word poetry with code, this is the same old argument from geekland...

Space Bar said...

km: Let's just say they tend to be as rich as they are happy.

??!: No one can quit their day job to be a poet. Not even wildly popular, near-cult figures like Joy Goswami. Poets are not, unfortunately, rock stars.

But you have a point about visibility, translating into sales sometimes, (however limited) making a difference to whether one gets a book deal the next time.

I'd argue, though, that the visibility the internet could, theoretically, offer you would make up in some sort for the lack of it in the 'real' world, where bookstores don't stock poetry and shove them in some dark and dusty corner when they do.

Falstaff: Keep every one of those rejection slips.

Oh, and make plans for when Cope comes calling on Poitre!

??! (again): you'd be pretty pissed if somebody put them up and that resulted in 200 potential buyers not buying the book.

Sigh. Yes. I would, I know. But I'd all at the same time be happy that more people would be reading it, and touched that someone thought it worth their while to type out the poems and discuss them. I might even keep a hanky handy.

Cheshire Cat: :D You have a point.

BM: Yes, I was reminded of the copyleft/open source thing while reading this. Cast your bread upon the waters, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Falstaff said...

space bar: Sigh. I wish someone would send me rejection slips that specific and personalized. The ones I get usually say "Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it does not meet our needs at this time." or something similar.