An author of my acquaintance, who has published a number of well-regarded works of both fiction and non-fiction, has a new book coming out next year. It’s a sort of “nonfiction novel” or extended essay, giving his very personal take on what it means to live in our current high-tech-mediated, pop-culture-dominated world. Since the book is about the here and now, the author weaves in quotations from multiple sources, all recognizable parts of the mediascape we live in.
The author has fought with his publishers for months about “sourcing” these quotations. He regards them as being covered under “fair use,” but the publisher demands that he get explicit permission to use them. The publisher will not budge. And so, the other day I received a form to sign. It requested explicit permission to quote some 90 words of mine, and also required me to certify that I did indeed “own” the copyright on these 90 words. I agreed to sign the document, just to make things easily for the author who wants to quote me; but I added an addendum, stating that his use of my words is covered by fair use, and therefore does not require my explicit permission.
An additional irony of the whole situation is that, of the 90-word passage of mine that the author is quoting, 50 of these words are not “mine” at all, but rather the words of somebody else, who I happen to be quoting (with full attribution). I regarded, and still regard, my own quotation as being an instance of fair use, and so I never asked the author of those 50 words for explicit permission to quote them. I got away with this, I suppose, because I published the text in question online, so I didn’t have a professional publisher to hassle me.
All this is idiotic in the extreme (not to mention that it must be a real pain for the author to collect all the permissions his publisher has required him to get). But we shouldn’t dismiss it as just idiocy; for it shows the real dangers of the current draconian interpretations of copyright and “intellectual property.” Lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, and overzealous self-censorship by publishers in order to cover themselves against the mere possibility of lawsuits: all this adds up to a much greater danger to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought, than anything the government could come up with. All thought is inspired by, and comes out of, previous thought; all writing is inspired by, and based upon, earlier writing. Without the freedom to quote, to cite, to remix and recompile, etc., there is simply no freedom of speech, expression, or thought at all.
(Note: in fairness to the author, in order to respect his privacy and to spare him unnecessary hassles, I have omitted his name, and that of his publisher, from the above).