December 5th, 2006

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Taking Money From Our Pockets

Folks who read here regularly know that I have a strong belief in upholding copyright law. Part of it is, admittedly, in my own self interest, as I've created works that have some value to them (or so I'd like to think). I would say that anyone who makes money off their creativity has some vested interest in maintaining certain rights over their work, no matter what they may say aloud.

There's also a certain level of respect for the creator that copyright should imply, but that doesn't always come along with it. A few years back, a man approached me about reprinting "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" for distribution to synagogues during Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). In his very first email to me, he said that he was offering no money, but that the exposure would be good for me. I pointed out to him that I earn part of my living off of my writing – in fact, there was a time when I had no other source of income – and I suggested that he pay me $100. His response was to say forget it. The irony was that if he had approached me from the start by asking how much I would charge him for the reprint rights, I would have offered the story for free. (A lesson to everyone.) But approaching me as if my work was valuable enough for reprinting and sharing, but not valuable enough to give me recompense, rubbed me the wrong way.

Of course, it could have been worse. He could have run off copies without ever telling me.

The real difficulty comes when people are either ignorant or clueless about copyright. Eric Berlin, who is a playwright among many other things, just shared an incident under the blog post title Dusting off my playwright hat for a moment. A woman who is part of a group putting on his play has invited him to attend the performance. The only problem is, it appears that the group might not have bothered to license the rights. I say "might not" because Berlin notes the possibility that they might have tried to secure the rights but failed, due to the disorganization that exists at Samuel French.

However, assuming the group did in fact not bother securing rights, it puts Berlin in an interesting situation. The young woman who is playing the lead has praised the play very strongly, and any writer would love to hear his words praised in that fashion. But...but. If we don't pay our creative class for their work – if in fact we remain ignorant to the financial value their work should have to them – then what are we as a society saying to them?

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein