02 May 2009

Read-Write or Read-Only?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Lessig video we watched, about his concepts in general. For the three years I’ve been at GSLIS, I’ve heard and read more about copyright than I ever wished to know. But finally, I felt like I could relate. Like someone finally understood why copyright makes me cringe and why I think information should be free. Lessig gets it – he sees (and saw it before me, no doubt) that our culture has been shifting between read-only and read-write, struggling on both ends between different populations. There is this view that information is sacred, that one’s thoughts once manifested become one’s own property and cannot, should not, be altered. This view is outdated. It’s self-seeking and contrary to our current culture, one where information is freely shared, borrowed, and “stolen”—though it can only be stolen if someone has real, or rather imaginary, claims to it. Read-write culture, on the other hand, encourages information consumers to be producers as well. Take what you saw/read/heard and put your own spin on it, remix it. And teens, in particular, have been doing this in many ways that I can’t begin to describe. But I do want to talk about the relationship that teens have with books/authors and media.

There are some young adult authors and their books that inevitably gain enormous popularity with their readers. They understand that teens don’t just read their books, end of story. Teens long to participate; they want to become a part of the story, or re-create the story, or add to the story. They have something to say too. Some young adult authors have embraced this aspect of their readers’ personalities while others have tried to squash it. Herein lays a concrete example of the battle between read-write and read-only culture, what authors encourage and what authors forbid to be done with their intellectual property.

Some time ago, I came across Anne McCaffrey’s (creator of Pern and the dozens of books set in that world) website and was appalled to find that she forbade her fans to write fan fiction. It’s her world and she wanted to keep it that way. While I am sympathetic to the fact that this is her life’s work, her ideas, and her dedication that she did not want others trifling with, I am confused as to why she published her books in the first place. If she did not think or hope that others would engage with her stories in vastly different ways, including the desire to write fan fiction about them, then what was her purpose? She just wanted others to like her stories? I feel like some authors don’t quite understand what’s at stake when they publish their ideas – they’re not their own anymore, as many copyrights stand in the way. Once those thoughts are unleashed to the public in a concrete form, a fierce little copyright symbol is not going to stop people (and should not!) from actively participating with the material. I share this story because I recently revisited McCaffrey’s website to find that instead of explicitly forbidding her fans to write fan fiction, she has decreed a set of “rules” concerning fan fiction, most of which are reasonable but all of which are still an attempt to keep her readers from making the jump from consumers to producers. She still feels like she should be able to control the creative outbursts from fans concerning her body of work. And I still think she is alienating fans and denying them the chance to honor her work by engaging with it personally on their own terms.

And then there are authors like Cassandra Clare (author of The Mortal Instruments trilogy) who seem to understand their fans better and don’t try to limit their creative expressions. In fact, before City of Glass (the final book in the trilogy) was released, Clare held a contest on her blog, giving away four Advanced Reading Copies of the book to winners of the four categories of the contest – She writes:
“each category requires you to do a fun or creative thing that’s somehow related to the Mortal Instruments books.”
The categories were: Art, Video, Fanworks, and Book Location. More on the contest rules here. How’s that for supporting readers’ creative aspirations? Clare knows that teens can’t help but to create, and she appreciates the fact that readers enjoy her books so much that they would invest the time, energy, and creativity it takes to put together a fanvid or write and illustrate an original poem inspired by the books. And the entries she received were truly fantastic. You can look through them here. (My personal favorite is below.)

I know that examples of this author-reader interaction abound, but I chose these two mostly because they were fresh in my mind and really seemed to capture the read-write, read-only contrast. It’s no surprise that I’m an advocate for read-write culture, and I wish more people were. Moreover, I wish that people could understand that this point of view does not necessitate the loss of intellectual property rights. Your copyrighted work is your own and will be for as long as that copyright lasts – but to limit the interpretation of your work by fans seems backwards to me. It’s done in the academic world all of the time! We just have the courtesy to cite people when we use and interpret their ideas. Also, it’s a way of building community and allowing fans to express their appreciation. Living in such a connected world, it’s now commonplace to look up your favorite author and find that they have a blog/MySpace/Facebook account that you can friend or follow. I love that some authors truly want to stay connected to their fans and are grateful for their fandom.

Before I get too far off track, I did want to end with some questions for us to consider as youth or teacher-librarians. I find myself stuck in between the worlds of copyright and Creative Commons – wanting information to be free and realizing that there are restrictions placed on nearly everything. How can we encourage youth to be critical consumers of information AND creative producers without laying down the strict copyright laws? It seems that if you are engaging in the activities as seen in Clare’s contest, you are breaking tons of copyright laws. Where did those images come from? Where did you get those sound bites? Frankly, I don’t want to be the one that says, “No, you can’t do that.” Because I don’t agree with the policies in the first place. So, how did I set my personal views aside and teach students to be legally responsible? Or do I?

I think the video below is genius … but is it legal (ethical?) to use Motel 6? Or Tinkerbell? Count Chocula? I don’t see anything wrong with it, but I suspect others would disagree…

The Lightwood Llama Song is a response to the Llama Song, below:

1 comment:

  1. I find copyright completely frustrating. I understand the point behind it, but it seems like it's gotten completely out of control, especially since the internet has taken off. Yes, people deserve to get credit for and make money off their ideas. But there are so many rules and regulations, some of which don't even really make sense.

    Fair use is so confusing, I don't think anyone completely understands it, outside of copyright lawyers. For the record, I don't see anything wrong with the images used in the Lightwood Llama song either, although there may be some trademark issues that aren't covered by copyright and fair use. On the other hand, I can't see any damage being done to those brands or trademarks by a silly video.

    I remember when I was in Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem-solving group. For the annual competition, we had to come up with some kind of skit to go along with whatever else we had produced. There were lots of parodies of famous copyrighted works like superheroes, Jurassic Park, Evita, and more that I can't remember offhand. When I was in middle school, they changed the rules to disallow any kind of parodies. Maybe they wanted to encourage us to stretch our creative sides a little further and not rely on these works as much. But I believe there is a high degree of creativity in parody, and I think they were more concerned about possible copyright violations.

    I have to admit, I don't really understand the principle behind public performance rights. Okay, I understand that it makes sure that people get paid for their work, but let's use a library for example. They buy a copy of a DVD, and let people borrow it. How is that different than taking that same DVD and showing it to a group of kids in the library?

    And then there's the issue that, if we're being honest with ourselves, the chances of anything ever being released into the public domain ever again are slim to none. Even if Disney decided to give up the fight, there are plenty of other entertainment corporations out there that would be loathe to stop making money off their various properties.

    I like your point about using and interpreting other people's work and ideas in the academic world. If citing your sources is enough in those pursuits, why not in other forms of non-commercial expression? Fan fiction and fan art serve many of the same principles as academic writing and interpretation - training students to analyze form, composition, and other aspects of a work and apply it to their own work. The fan fiction writers and fan artists of today could become the hot authors and artists of tomorrow. Personally, my own feelings regarding copyright tend to follow the Hippocratic oath - "First, do no harm." I realize, though, that harm can be a difficult thing to discern. Could a really bad fanfic hurt sales of a book? Possibly, but I doubt it.

    Anne McCaffery said it herself at the beginning of her fan fiction regulations - imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. So why do so many still cling so tightly to the reins of copyright?