The learned Lawrence Lessig recently gave a talk on copyright issues at the UCLA law school. You can find a very handy summary of what he said on the UCLA site. Anyone who uses the internet regularly enough to be reading this blog should take the trouble to read the key points of Lessig's argument, which are helpfully listed at the top of the page.
Perhaps the most interesting of Lessig's arguments, to the relative newcomer to these weighty issues, is that every use of the internet involves making a copy, which theoretically requires the copyright owner's permission, which makes criminals of us all. But do we care a tuppenny whatsit? No, sir and madam, we do not. Hence respect for the law is daily diminished. Which is how we come to have 11-year-old kids being sued by record companies and then going out and breaking all kinds of other laws. Get real, folks, and sort this out.
Lessig wisely makes the point that about 98% of published copyright material -- note the emphasis on published -- has no commercial value whatever after a year or two. So giving it a copyright life of 94 years, or whatever term the American Congress has recently dreamed up, is both unnecessary and unhelpful. It hampers the free exchange of ideas, a process which, for the small and shrinking minority who are still capable of rational thought, has historically produced some important results.
As for copyright in unpublished material -- well, pardon me while I give a rueful laugh. You won't have to look far in the advice columns for writers to find 'experts' who advise you to send a copy of an unpublished manuscript to yourself via registered mail, and then lock it in a bank vault, so that if and when someone steals your successor to Harry Potter you can whip it out and cry Aha! And claim your million dollars in the courts.
This is all complete cobblers, of course. In the first place, the likelihood is that your wonderful novel has no commercial value whatever. You are most unlikely to be able to sell it to a commercial publisher. If you do, the publisher is unlikely to be able to sell many copies of it. And if you publish it yourself, the costs are likely to exceed the profits from copies sold. So save the postage on the sending it to yourself business. Publishers have a general rule of thumb. Suppose a manuscript comes in covered in large labels which say COPYRIGHT!!! ALL RIGHTS RESERVED!!! ANYONE STEALING THIS MATERIAL WILL BE BEHEADED AT DAWN!!! The rule of thumb is this: the larger and more strident the labels, the bigger the heap of crap this manuscript is likely to be.
In any case, suppose somebody does rip off your work, what are you going to do then? Sue? Think twice before you do. Successful suits for breach of copyright are seldom reported. I know of one case where the author of a book on a pop star opened a newspaper and saw an article which was, in his opinion, more or less a straight steal from his book. He sued the newspaper and won. Only trouble was, he was awarded £8,000 in damages, and had legal costs of £20,000.
Then there was the Full Monty business. A good many years ago I saw a New Zealand play called Ladies Night, about a bunch of unemployed men who turned themselves into male strippers. A few years later, along came a movie called The Full Monty, about a bunch of unemployed men who.... I assumed the movie was a filmed version of Ladies Night. Turns out it was an 'original story'. The authors of Ladies Night sued the makers of The Full Monty for stealing their story. They lost.
Lawrence Lessig has devised a means whereby copyright holders can give a general authorisation for people to use their work on a much more generous basis than is allowed by the copyright laws. It's called a Creative Commons licence. As soon as I get organised I shall put a notice about it on this blog.