girl meets copyright

The other day, a friend called to tell me that she was getting published in an international journal. The first words out of my mouth were, “Be sure you read your copyright agreement.” Yup. Not “Congratulations,” not “That’s great,” not “When can I get a copy?” Nope. I am such a librarian that the first thing I told her to do was to check her copyright.

I spent my formative years, as most people do, blissfully unaware of the intricacies of intellectual property. In fact, I’m fairly sure I didn’t run across that term until I was in graduate school (my second graduate school). Oh, I’d looked at the copyright statements in books from time to time, to see when they were written, and I’d realized that sometimes the copyright date didn’t really tell you that, because it was the date the copyright was renewed, or it was a copyright for that edition or something. I’d seen the battered paper sign taped up by the copy machines at the public library that gave dire warnings in small print about photocopying copyrighted material. I knew that when my favorite used record store put up a cutout of Garth Brooks saying you shouldn’t buy used CDs, it was making fun of the movement started by Brooks and other artists to clamp down on the sale of used CDs because they supposedly cut into their profits. But on the whole, copyright wasn’t something I ever thought about. The phrase “public domain” had not yet entered my consciousness.

How I got from those days copy ignorance to my current state of copyawareness is an interesting, and, I hope, instructive story.

This blog has had a Creative Commons license on it since it started back in 2005, which is around the same time I learned of the existence of Creative Commons, and since all the hip librarian bloggers were doing it, it seemed like the Thing to Do. And it resonated with me–I liked the idea that I could specify how people used my work, though it wasn’t something I had ever thought about before.

About a year later, I got asked to contribute something to a special issue of Counterpoise being edited by the Homelessness, Hunger, and Poverty Task Force. Graduate school, multiple jobs, and life being what they are, I ended up deciding to give them not something new, as I’d hoped, but rather a column I had written back when I wrote for the Daily Iowan that I thought would be appropriate. I had been in library school for long enough at that point that I had a dim idea I ought to ask the paper about reprinting it. I did, and they said, “oh, yes, you can do that; there’s a form to fill out and the publication that wants to reprint it will need to pay a $10 fee.” Um.

So I asked for the form, and I filled it out to the best of my knowledge, and I sent the company a check and thought, “well, I guess I got paid $16.50 for this, so I still made a profit on it.”

Several years later, when I was fully employed as a librarian, the Iowa thesis and dissertation open access policy came out. Basically, it required everyone submitting a masters thesis or doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa to submit it electronically and make it part of an institutional repository that would be fully searchable and available online. Iowa’s was not the first such policy, but it was among the more controversial, largely because it aroused the ire and wrath of the writers.

Before I became a librarian, I was a dog-walker, and before that, I got an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which is the unfamous cousin of the much more widely known Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was a heavy library user. I loved books! I loved bound periodicals! I even loved that I could find newspaper articles via LexisNexis, via dialup, from my home. I loved libraries! But I did not know diddley-squat about them, or about copyright, and neither did most of my writer friends. And so when that mandate came out, my old graduate program listserv, which I still subscribe to, which is mostly a sleepy little thing with occasional posts about residencies or calls for submissions or announcements about readings, went crazy.

Graduates who had written essays using the real names and identities of people went apeshit at the idea that those essays might get digitized and the people might find them whilst Googling themselves. People who’d had things published fretted about the consequences of having those things, often in earlier draft form, digitized. People who hoped to have things published worried they’d never be able to because no one would publish stuff that was already out there on the web. To some extent, these concerns are legitimate (although to the “I used real names” people I wanted to say, “and you were not concerned about the people who could walk into the library and take your thesis off the shelf and read it? Or find it in a library catalog and request it?”–neither of these is, of course, comparable to late-night ego-surfing, but it would be enough to give me pause when mentioning people in a piece of writing), because most mainstream publishers are still freaked out about electronic text and believe that no one will ever pay for things any more if they can get them for free somewhere else. And their concerns were, eventually, listened to — the current policy allows MFA students to choose open access electronic deposit only if they want to, and there is strong language about how paper theses will never be scanned.

Recently, an old friend asked if she could get a copy of an essay of mine that she wanted to teach as a part of one of her classes. Library geek that I am, I immediately went off to see if the journal it was published in was indexed anywhere and if full-text from it was available. Somewhat to my surprise, it was, but not until a few years after my essay was published. So I fetched my copy of the journal from home and scanned a copy and then, good librarian that I am, went to check out the copyright situation.

If you’ve ever watched a VH-1 Behind the Music documentary, you know that there are several things that happen in the life of any musician. There are drug and/or alcohol problems. There are a succession of drummers. There are breakthrough albums or songs and later disappointments. There are quarrels with bandmates. And there is financial ruin brought about by the fact that the band was so excited that someone wanted to sign them that they didn’t bother to read the contract that says that all their money is going to their agent and their record label. Writers are much the same way, at least in my (limited) experience. You want to publish me? Oh thank you thank you thank you! And then you call all your writer friends, or at least all the one who you think won’t hate you, and you go out and drink toasts, and you get some paperwork from the journal editor and you send it back, and many months later, you get a few copies of this journal with your essay in it, and, well, there is no high like the high of seeing your name in print. I have never had a book published, but I’m guessing it’s a similar thing on a much larger scale. Oh yeah, there was that paperwork I signed about them printing my essay or publishing my book, but I just kind of glanced at it.

Well. Ha. I knew better now. I was a librarian. I had been reading Dorothea Salo religiously since library school. I knew you did not just glance at your publishing agreement. But of course back in 2003, that’s all I did. So this time around I went to go look it up. Literary journals, generally speaking, as I now know, retain the copyright on your piece until it is published, and then it reverts back to you. So sent my friend a PDF of my essay and told her the copyright was mine and she could use it with my blessings. She thanked me, in a slightly baffled fashion, and it was then that I realized that while I’ll always bridge two worlds, I will also always be a librarian.

Other people have written about open access and the humanities, and about why humanists, of all people, should be cheering the California Digital Library on in its boycott of Nature Publishing Group.* My librarian friends are mostly still afraid to talk about these issues when it comes to the creative writing types, though. But I’m not. I am a creative writing type, or at any rate, I was, and I can tell you that this stuff does matter, even for the creative folk.

So you want to complain that open access will destroy the marketability of your work? Okay. Fine. But then don’t complain when books cost money, and when that course packet of essays you want to put together for your class turns out to cost a lot of money, and when the library and the department send you nasty notes about the illegality of making multiple copies of copyrighted work for your classes. Because you know what? All those other writers want their work to be marketable, too, and their publishers all told them that the only way to do that was to clamp down on all these people trying to steal their stuff for free.

Do you want your school to go on subscribing to The Georgia Review and Granta, not to mention the little little magazines — all those obscure journals where you got your start? Then it’s very much in your interest to support things like the CDL’s fight against NPG, because library budgets are not forever expandable. Librarians want to give you access to the things that you want. It’s what we live for. Well, that and watching David beat Goliath. If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance that in addition to buying books, you use, or have used, a library heavily at some point in your life. There’s a good chance that you have generally positive feelings about libraries, albeit mostly as places that contain books. We are that, and we will continue to be that, at least in part. We want to do for your work what librarians have always done: collect it, preserve it, and make it available, in whatever ways are best suited to the time and the place and to patrons’ needs. (Translation: yes, we are looking at digital stuff. Yes, we may some day want your work in digital format, too. Yes, we think this is a good thing. Yes, we understand that you have concerns, and we do take those seriously. And we really don’t think you want to go back to the days of books in closed stacks findable only through searching gigantic tomes. Do you also want your book not to appear on Amazon.com?) But in order to do all of this, we need money, and right now, we are being gouged. California has decided they aren’t going to take it any more. I hope you will support them.

*As Dorothea notes, the CDL vs. NPG thing is only very tangentially an open access issue, and I realize I’m conflating a lot of things here that shouldn’t all necessarily be conflated. But they are related, and they are all often equally scary, and so I am treating them as kind of a big IP monolith for the sake of this particular exercise.

One thought on “girl meets copyright”

  1. I think I am in love with the last two paragraphs of this essay. I know I am in love with “Librarians want to give you access to the things that you want. It’s what we live for. Well, that and watching David beat Goliath.”

    *swoon*

    Like

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