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The end of private ownership means the end of the publishing industry

Colin Bower

May I come at this issue from a perspective that has not been aired in your entertaining and instructive Seminar Room?

Barbara Adair writes an erudite defence of the post-modern position in terms of which writing purporting to have some degree of originality really exists as a cultural artefact. As a result, all writing is quotation, and all books are "mosaic(s) of quotation". I don't deny that such a proposition is matter for vital academic or intellectual debate. But I trust that those who argue it realise that if it means the end of private ownership of any literary creation it also means the end of the publishing industry. Those who keep company with Proudhon – "all private ownership is theft" – may welcome such a development and they will be well supported in their quest for universal ownership by the existence of the internet, which gives us all a platform to propound our views, or even to take the views or the expressions of others and propound them as our own.

But for the moment, writers sell their intellectual creations to publishers for a price, and publishers add a little value to those creations and sell them to buyers, also for a price. Since this is all done on a voluntary basis, I can't see why it would offend anybody. And it certainly makes writers, publishers and readers happy in some large measure. But it depends on certain conventions quite specifically not post-modern. For instance, writers are expected to sign undertakings to their publishers that the work they offer for publication is their own. Can a post-modernist writer make such a claim in good conscience, when she (or he) subscribes to the view that all they are really offering is a set of quotations from others "without inverted commas"?

And as post-modern as any writer may claim to be, one rarely finds one whose work is published without author accreditation, and even more rarely without the payment of a royalty. To place a book with a publisher, to publish it with accreditation, and to accept payment – often handsome payment (to say nothing of the fame such a publication might bring) – is as implicit a claim to ownership as anyone could hope to find. Having done so, and having benefited accordingly, to seek to extricate oneself from the rigours of proving ownership on the grounds that, as far as the creation of knowledge is concerned, we are, everyone of us, equal partners in the act of that creation, is a pitiable self-deception.

Adair suggests that we can no longer premise literary creation "upon the concept of individuality, originality and uniqueness"; it may be regrettable, but it is precisely on the premise of these three concepts that published authors earn both their fortune and their fame, and it would be a refreshing act of literary honesty if a post-modernist novelist (say) were to return her or his royalties on the grounds of the argument Adair has mounted. All publishers, and nearly all authors, are most happy to fall back upon the decidedly un-post-modern proceedings of a court of civil law to defend their rights to ownership and the benefits of ownership when such rights have been clearly violated.

If I am to give credit to a weighty tome called Essays in the History of Publishing, published by Longman, more particularly the essay in it called “Copyright and Society” by Ian Parsons, I must believe that "the concept of copyright stems from the basic Common Law view that a man [sic] is entitled to the fruits of his own labour, and ... it does not matter whether that labour is physical or intellectual". But over many centuries, this common law has been qualified by statutes recognising that there is indeed a fine line to be drawn between what is truly the fruit of an individual's claims to original creation, and the existence of commonly owned knowledge created by those who went before – what Adair imaginatively calls "the mask of culture". The evolving statutes governing copyright recognised, moreover, the legitimate claims of society to the creative work of an author, and so the ownership of that work was limited in time. Recognising that fine line, the law put into place provisions covering fair dealing and a wide rang of other practices whereby authors could indeed draw upon the works and the creation of others. Outside of the law, conventions covering borrowings, allusions and many other sorts of usages were also developed. This all adds up to a fine tradition within which the interests of the creating writer and the receiving establishment are recognised. Of course it is a tradition which also depends upon the willing compliance of all participants.

It serves nearly everyone well, but it is certainly at risk in the face of the notion of common ownership, and it would be a great shame to see it disappear down the post-modernist plug-hole. This is why it seems strange to me that publishers are quite so eager to make ill-considered public defence of authors against whom allegations of plagiarism are brought, even in the instances where such allegations may seem groundless at face value. It would be reassuring to the book-buying public to hear some strong comment in the public realm that the first loyalty of publishers is to guard against the putting of stolen goods into the market.

And what about the reader? Well, she buys books on a voluntary basis, and will soon make her own decisions about what she does or doesn't like. Regrettably, there are armies of people who are prepared to buy stolen property if they get it for a good price, and they are confident that their illicit purchase will go undetected. The reader of pulp fiction by definition doesn't mind rereading the same old stuff dressed up in different clothes. The reader of books making a higher claim upon her thinking abilities will presumably want to know within all reasonable limits that the work she has bought, a work attributed to an author by name, is that author's work in its entirety, and that when it draws on the work of another, the usage will be acknowledged on a generous basis.

Astonishingly for those who believe that it is a core human mission to refrain from making simple matters complex, this appears to be a tricky matter to adjudicate in a post-modernist world. There is, it seems to me, quite an easy distinction to be made between the vapours of the skull, where all thought is held to dwell in such a world, and the tacky passing off of another's words as your own. So, as a reader and as a buyer of books, I will make my choices accordingly. I do hope everybody else does as well.

LitNet: 24 March 2006

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