We’ve recently returned from Boskone: a very nice convention. One of the interesting sights I saw there was a fellow preaching copyright absolute and everlasting. His writing belonged solely to him, he said, and should continue to belong solely to him (or, presumably, his heirs and assigns) forever more.
One hears such things from time to time.
Isn’t that fun? You see there the advent of universal alphabetical order in our language. And if Disney or Lucasfilms or other entities I could name had been around at that time, and if they’d held the rights to Cawdrey’s dictionary, I can easily imagine them claiming perpetual ownership of the idea of organization by alphabetical order.
If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand, and to profit by this Table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfecty without booke, and where euery Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c.
I wish I could recall the title of the book in which the author ingeniously explained that he’d compiled a list of the major subject headings in his book and the pages on which they occurred, and printed it at the end of the volume. That was trippy, to be momentarily in a universe where the index was a brand-new thing that had to be introduced and explained to the reader. I remember that he had a good piece of down-home advice: if the reader discovered that he’d left some necessary or useful entry out of the index, they should take pen and ink, and enter it in their own copy.
Every book is unique. Every good book encapsulates value that is unique to that book. But all writing floats in a sea of other writing, and a book’s unique elements are never the whole of the book. Every writer is part of a larger general discourse, and in the course of writing will adopt, adapt, reject, comment on, and bounce new ideas off that body of discourse.
Aren’t you glad that, three hundred years later, we’re not paying royalties to the inheritors of the Cawdrey estate every time we use alphatical order as an organizing principle?
It is right that what’s new and unique in a writer’s work be recognized as peculiarly their own. That’s fine. But copyright is not a statement of inalienable natural right. It’s a social convention, intended to reward (and thus encourage) writers and publishers to produce more books. To pervert it into a claim of perpetual ownership, especially when that claim is being forwarded by large entertainment conglomerates, is the moral equivalent of driving a fence around the commons.