Editorial – Issue 61

Copycat crime

A few decades ago a newspaper ran in full without permission a crucial chapter of an enthusiastically awaited political book on the eve of its publication. I remember this for the copyright dispute it provoked more than for the book, which is long gone and pretty much forgotten. I remember it even more for the fact that when the matter arose it was difficult for the parties concerned to find lawyers experienced and expert on issues of copyright.

At that time it took the resources of a newspaper or publishing house to copy and reproduce a significant amount of prose, and those organisations were generally aware of the nuances of copyright law; so copyright breaches were rare. But faster copiers, scanners, CD recorders and the ubiquity of material once it is on the internet has changed all that not only for print but for music and the visual arts. Original works, or large extracts, can now be reproduced easily and often at low cost. As a result, breaches of the law are commonplace and the responsibility for abiding by the law has shifted from a few major organisations to almost everyone, and especially the owners of PCs.

So nowadays every major law firm has people who specialise in intellectual property.

However, despite a new awareness among professionals, too few people feel much of an obligation to understand the nature of intellectual property ownership and why it should be protected.

On the one hand, I’ve heard some people (even an academic or two) insist that public access to knowledge is more important than private ownership of it and they should be able to copy and distribute works in the interests of culture and education. And, on the other hand, I’ve heard writers claim that any copying of extracts from their work is tantamount to breaking and entering and stealing the family silver.

Ownership of copyright is not the same as ownership of a house, car or other material things. The law tries to balance public access to knowledge against the right of writers to get fairly paid for the commercial use of their work. If they aren’t fairly paid, they may not bother to continue to write and contribute not only to the national culture but also to the economy. The basics are these: anyone may copy print excerpts for their own personal use or study, but the copying of whole works while they are in print is illegal and the multiple copying of significant excerpts is too. And that is where most breaches occur – the multiple reproduction of excerpts to provide knowledge or informed opinion for staff of businesses or for students.

The legislation provides for organisations large or small to obtain a licence (from Copyright Licensing Limited in New Zealand) which enables them to reproduce a specified amount of a novel, poem, short story, or work of non-fiction for the purposes of education or enlightenment.

Because it is easier to break the law by pilfering pieces of prose for commercial purposes (and informing your staff is a commercial purpose), writers and lawyers are becoming more vigilant. Writers should keep a close eye on possible breaches and inform one another or CLL when they notice them. An example of what can happen without vigilance is: a journalist I know recently signed an agreement with a magazine publisher to allow her feature article to go on the magazine’s website. What she didn’t know was that other organisations had been allowed access to take copies from that website as they thought fit.

So the article became free to anyone who wanted to copy it for educational purposes – without the author’s consent and outside the parameters of a licence. No mask, no jemmy, but burglary of a kind has been committed.


Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland author and immediate past chair of the board of Copyright Licensing Limited.


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