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Oh Ursula, Ursula, Why?

On this, and this, and this, which I learned about from this. In the comment thread to the first post, Mr. Burt, the snarling copyright poodle of SFWA, claims that Fair Use is often recommended to be 5-10% of a work. Which, of course, raises an interesting question. Nick Mamatas notes how this is a number Burt has pulled right out of the hole in his bottom, but let’s give it the momentary benefit of the (serious) doubt, see how it looks when you wipe the poodle dung off.

If 5-10% <i>were</i> Fair Use, would it make sense for people to go and post the first 5-10% of someone else’s novel on our blogs? Say, chapter 1? Do we have your blessing on that, Mr. Burt?

Of course not. Because sane people recognize that fair use will change from one context to another — that’s why it’s variable from context to context — and 10% of a haiku is just slightly more than one syllable, while 10% of a longer work can be clearly too much, and unfair use. And anyway, almost no blogger would actually <i>do</i> that, because it’s obvious that’s wrong.

Which brings up the standards and customs of the blogosphere in which Boingboing resides, and in which short, published works are reproduced rampantly to the amusement and edification of all involved, for little or no profit. (And when there are objections, a cordial email from one adult to another is all it usually takes to rectify things, in legal terms if not otherwise.) This is how the Internet works, for those who haven’t caught up. People copy stuff. They show all their friends. In that sense, blogging is about as piratical as copying news articles into email and sending them to all your friends. Or faxing jokes from one office to another. Legal terms might disagree, but that reflects a much bigger disjunct between the law and common practice online — which is why Doctorow is only one of many who copied and posted the text. Okay, Le Guin and Burt don’t know about or approve of that culture, and apply the, yes, fairly applicable if somewhat outdated legal standards to it. They ask for a rectification of unlawful reproduction. It’s followed. That should be the end of the discussion.

And yes, yes, the bloggers could just link. But <i>bloggers don’t do that</i>, so either we’re all criminals, or else the law doesn’t exactly reflect the popular common judgment of the people, and could stand to be revised somewhat to reflect what the people en masse deem fair and rational use of texts. In jazz music, normal copyright laws don’t apply to live shows: only a fool would say, “We can’t play Autumn Leaves! It’s copyrighted!” And this is relatively similar in degree to that, in terms of being out of tune with the blogosphere. So while a takedown request is legal, it’s kind of missing the point of the posting to call this “piracy” — missing the point to the degree that it looks like a pathetic attempt at character assassination. Or even, considering Doctorow’s vested interest in copyright issues, some form of outright libel.

As for the idea that Doctorow was “misrepresenting” Le Guin’s opinions, whether he did or not, authors’ works are interpreted differently from the authors’ intentions all the time. That’s life in the grown-up world. Posting one’s interpretation of a text isn’t misrepresentation, it’s just stating an opinion in public. (And looking at the archived post, I’m having trouble figuring out what Doctorow got wrong. I certainly don’t see it.)
The sad result is not that Cory Doctorow is painted as a pirate. The sad result is that Le Guin and Burt are now publicly confirmed just to totally not “get it” about the internet, respect is lost for a famous and well-regarded author, Mr. Burt has to reply to a bunch of comments online, and bloggers shake their heads and move on, a little sadder and a little less likely to take Le Guin and Burt seriously in later situations, when it does matter. A little more wary when anyone at SFWA uses the word “piracy” or copyright. Maybe even a little less likely to buy that Ursula Le Guin book when they think back on this. Which is sad.

Yes, it’s sad that this piece of Le Guin’s writing is now just a plank with rusty nails in it being used to defend SFWA’s reputation as a copyright-protector, because if getting paid is “gravy”, then what is the implied meat of Le Guin’s purpose in writing it? To comment on the comments someone made about the genre we all love: to get a message out to people, I’d guess. And ironically, by being “defended” thus by SFWA, fewer people will read the piece, and fewer people will know about it — far fewer, now that negative sentiments are provoked by the tone of Le Guin’s and Burt’s comments on the subject. That’s a sad outcome, as I enjoyed the piece and would hope everyone involved would want more people reading it.

And no, I’m not a member of SFWA. Lots of drama over there. Too bad.

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