Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Go ahead and ask: Why is she studying this stuff?

At this point, any sane human being should be wondering why in the world someone would get interested in studying copyright and related issues in depth when they aren't, say, in law school.

I suppose I've always had an interest in copyright in that I have always been interested in the concept of ideas as property. I remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was younger where the author, Betty Smith, wrote an introduction to an updated edition wherein she said that one of her fans wrote her a letter saying that Betty had written the fan's book before the fan had gotten a chance to do so. But the way in which the fan had phrased the letter made it sound almost accusatory, like, "You took MY great idea and got paid for it! You thief!" That anecdote in the introduction always stuck with me; could Betty Smith in fact be accused of stealing because her book happened to be about the same things another person merely thought of? (I think probably not, but that's what we'll learn as I continue with my studies.)

Later I took workshops in writing wherein novice authors (and some not-so-novice authors) were always freaking out about someone stealing their ideas or works, to the point where some people wouldn't even share their plot lines or titles. The term "poor man's copyright" (where you mail a copy of your work to yourself and keep it sealed to prove the date of creation) was bandied about. Everyone seemed obsessed with protecting their ideas. The funny part about this paranoia is that writers are so self-obsessed that no one else has time to pay attention to anyone else's ideas. (For the most part anyway.)

The seed in my head that became this directed study wasn't planted until Fall 2006 in my Magazine Publishing Overview course. We had a particularly dynamic guest speaker one evening who was an intellectual property rights lawyer. I found our discussion about publishing ethics and laws related to publishing fascinating. For a brief hour, I considered chucking it all and going to law school. Dreams of brilliantly defending the slandered and plagiarized filled my head. Then I regained my sanity.

But the ideas we talked about that night stuck in my head. The more I learned about copyright and writers' rights, the more interested I grew. This past semester (Spring 2007), I took a Book Publishing Overview class and started to develop a keen interest in the work of literary agents. I was particularly interested in the concept of writers making money by selling various rights, such as translation rights, paperback rights, etc., and thought it might not be a bad living to be a literary agent or a foreign rights agent. And any time we talked about copyright in class, I found the subject really interesting. I found myself wanting to pursue the topic in depth, but none of the classes offered at Emerson really delved into these topics down to their geekiest depths. Hence, my directed study.

So now my directed study has begun. I'll be beginning at the beginning: learning about the history of copyright, and in my next few posts I'll be reflecting on how it all started, what direction things took, and where we're at today--and why.

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