The Writers Guild of America strike and the recent ruling over content rights for print journalists reflect discord in the entertainment industry and in traditional publishing. In all corners of the content world, dialog is in progress over a number of issues, with new media at the forefront. Who could foresee the impact technology would have on the writing profession? New developments are announced with a frequency akin to the reproduction capabilities of rabbits. The entertainment industry appears unified and well-protected. The publishing industry is anything but.
Years ago, a contract from a periodical was a simple thing. Now, most publications want all possible, foreseeable, future and even maybe rights when they make an agreement with a journalist. Questions abound. Should a writer be paid for content uploaded to a cell phone? Should a writer be compensated if content originally run in print is published on the Web? Should a writer be allowed to pursue financial recompense if he or she didn’t formally register with the U.S. Copyright Office? This last question is one that perplexes and bothers me most of all. The U.S. Copyright Office notes, as I’ve pointed out before, the following:
In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.
And the monopoly for registration is owned by none other than the federal government.
I fail to see the logic. The government position assumes the only valid means of protecting the potential monetary value of one’s work rests in the government. Anytime something rests in the government, I get a little nervous. The downside of the current copyright registration procedure involves writers like me having to spend time filing forms and (naturally: it’s a government thing) paying to protect something I already own in the first place. And if you’ve ever tried to call the U.S. Copyright Office, you know that is essentially a pipe dream. The line is always, always, always busy. Journalists and other writers are as imprisoned as a felon when it comes to seeking damages from plagiarists who steal the work of others. Lacking an official U.S. Copyright document all a writer can do is demand the work be removed from a Web site, and there doesn’t appear to be much at all you can do if someone lifts lengthy passages for a book.
So here’s my challenge. Geek people, seize opportunity. Come up with a simple database where a writer can pay a fee and register his or her works online. Come up with some means of vetting the writer’s identity. Badger government officials—you know, the ones we elect to allegedly represent us—to determine how to set up the system so it will pass muster in the courts.
As a writer, I am extremely annoyed that the only hope of financial recompense, should someone steal my work, is in government hands and worse, the courts. When judges understand the freelance writing profession, I will look up at the Florida skies and see my hound dog flying wildly, waving to me as he wags his tail with joy, baying at the new feathered friends he’s made.