Some years ago, a writer friend of mine entered a short story competition run by a publisher of children’s books. The story she submitted had previously been sent to a radio station which was, at that time, regularly reading short stories on air, but this didn’t appear to clash with the competition rules. Her story didn’t win anything in the competition.
Not very long afterwards there was a children’s book published with a VERY similar storyline and (surprise, surprise,) the publisher was none other but the one who had run the competition. The characters had been altered just enough to make a difference and the credit was all given to the well-connected illustrator, who had also produced a suitable story about how he had come up with the idea. That book has since sold millions of copies, world-wide. Was it really just a coincidence?
My friend has no children of her own, she was unaware of the book until another friend told her (and I was present on that occasion). Her own records show she sent the story to the radio station several years before the book was published, and so I am convinced that the original story was hers. The publisher clearly had the opportunity to read her work before the book was published. Unfortunately my friend was not in a financial position to challenge the copyright.
Incidents like this make you wonder, how many other times this has happened with writing competitions? How many publishers exploit competitions and writers this way?
I’m afraid the incident put me off entering competitions, especially when I heard that several years later my friend had another idea stolen by entering a competition. This time the organisers were a respected writer’s organisation and she had been planning to attend their conference, where the stories were to be judged. Unfortunately, she fell ill and had to cancel her trip. Some time later, she discovered that someone in the admin staff of the organisation had apparently submitted her story under their own name and won awards for it.
There have been several high-profile copyright cases over the years, not only in writing, but also in music. The trouble is that it is very difficult for a small-time writer or musician to fight a copyright case through the courts, even if they dare risk the financial implications, and so some unscrupulous people take advantage of this situation. Some claim there is no copyright on ideas, but the difference between an idea and a piece of intellectual work can be a fine line.
The problem is not just confined to competitions either. Submissions to magazines and newspapers are also easily exploited. I too, have had the experience of a carefully-crafted piece of writing published under someone else’s name. I complained, and had a correction and apology printed in the following issue, but these are always small and not easy to spot. The damage has already been done – and the results linger for all time in archives, with the retraction easily missed.
Now we have the age of the internet, copyright theft is rife. It is so easy to cut and paste. If this is only for personal use/ study purposes, authors might not mind, but if someone is republishing the work, virtually untouched, under their own name, that is a different matter.
Photographs and images are just as much, if not more vulnerable on the web. Not everyone bothers to check if the picture they want to use is royalty-free, or has a creative commons licence. They just post whatever they want to post.
And then there is the whole music download argument that has rumbled on for many years…
Today’s young people have grown up with the internet, with such a wide range of content being so freely available with a few clicks of the mouse. They take it all fro granted and many don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to download/ share anything they want – for free. If they are asked to pay, they expect the charge to be a pittance – a token amount. After all, it’s out there on the internet, why should they pay to save it? What difference between that and other content given away for free?
The problem lies in what they don’t see. Behind all these items there are wordsmiths, researcher, artists, musicians, photographers, etc., working hard to produce the content, which can take many hours to create and seconds to be stolen. Yes, stolen. Copyright theft is just like any other kind of theft. Many of the people who produce this kind of work are depending on it for at least part of their living expenses. When it is stolen they are not paid.
If creative people cannot be paid for their work, they will either take it somewhere else, where they will be paid, or else they will stop producing it. The quality of new material would then gradually deteriorate. After all, why put time and effort into something if there’s no reward at the end?
Those who expect to be able to download anything for free from the internet, should ask themselves how they would feel if they were suddenly expected to carry on doing their own job without a wage at the end of the month. It’s the same thing, only creative people often don’t have the luxury of monthly pay.
Why is there such disrespect for intellectual property in this day and age? How much of it is because of the development of the internet – and information overload?
Perhaps the world-wide-web has made creative content seem more ethereal, so that consumers are less able to judge its worth because it’s no longer tangible. When music was sold on records or discs or tapes, when writing was in books and artwork hung on walls, they were tangible products and their value was, perhaps, more easily assessed. How come these same products are now worth so much less when published in a different way? The value is not only in the physical production costs, intellectual time is also a valid production cost.
Publishers who take the work of an unknown author and publish a version as someone else’s work could be shooting themselves in the foot. If a person’s work is good enough to publish, it is good enough to publish under their own name. If they can come up with a good story once, maybe they could do it again and again, like my friend, and if given a contract, could earn the publisher more money over time. Instead, any further ideas may be kept from public view – even eventually destroyed – because someone treated the author and their work with contempt.
Writers who deliberately steal from other writers are not really writers at all.
What do you think?