Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ideas as commodities

This business of nicked ideas keeps buzzing round my head and won't be swatted away.

It's absolutely true that - as Jessica, Alan Kellogg and Susan Hill point out, and as the recent Dan Brown trial showed - there's no copyright on ideas, nor should there be. And that many great writers are great on the strength of borrowed ideas, and, as Alan says, Shakespeare is the biggest nicker of them all. Modern copyright only applies to text (in the broadest sense, including all the art forms), which is why, as Jessica, says, so many new writers rush around putting sealed envelopes in their bank safe deposits.

It all seems so simple. It's not. When does an idea become text? As Susan and Alan say, once it gets fleshed out with characters etc and becomes imbued with an author's voice. But according to the law, this has to be written down, and more fool you if you spend an evening in the bar with a famour writer telling him your plot. And what about what people can do with a text? That treatment you wrote, the storyline of which was cleverly enough distorted that lawyers might argue for days: the young boy turned into a young girl, the three separate but linking story strands brilliantly teased to make three separate episodes of a drama series (and thus losing the subtleties)? You might think that this makes the original treatment unrecognisable, and that therefore it doesn't matter, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the TV company wouldn't think so. A storyline about x? Sorry, it's been done... TV companies do not take the line that it's not the idea that matters but what you do with it, the way you write it. They are not interested in writing but in ideas as commodities.

This is what's at the root of the problem: the commodification of ideas and art. That offending clause I mentioned previously is based on the notion that TV companies can buy ideas off you, and not only ideas but ownership of what you've written, and they often do, sometimes replacing the writer halfway through the development process - another thing the standard contract allows for (and which my contract allowed for). The concept of copyright drops by the wayside in this scenario. In fact, it's the big boys who benefit from copyright law (how successful would I have been, rushing round and waving my little safe deposit box in the face of that big powerful organisation with Miss Ice-Cool TV Executive folding her arms at the door?). Which is why traditional copyright is now being challenged by the Creative Commons initiative, based as I understand it on the notion of making artists' work more freely available for acknowledged borrowing, and on a democratic melting pot of creativity in which one artist's work can enrich and generate that of another - but in which the operative words are acknowledged and democratic.
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