Fernando Savater defends Charles Dickens, the apparently swashbuckling protector of copyright, in this fascinating piece of literary history (in the original Spanish here, in Google’s robot-English here). He describes how Dickens visited the USA and took on the US literary establishment on his own terms: instead of delivering the easy tales about English aristocratic privilege they were expecting to hear, he criticised the Americans for their own copyright laws which – at the time – allowed them to “pirate” (according to Savater, the usage was actually Dickens’s) foreign literary works by English writers like Dickens himself.
Savater then goes on to conclude (this is my loose translation):
In this way, he confronted public opinion, which isn’t always right but has the advantage of being in the majority. And the fact of the matter is that cultural creators are always in the minority when compared to those who consume and enoy, whether this be in that century or ours. Carry out the following test: condemn the corruption of politicians and bankers and the masses will agree satisfied; condemn the corruption of the unscrupulous Internet users and one will be booed. [...]
With this sort of argument, he decides very clearly that we must respect and admire Dickens for precisely his honourable and sustained defence – despite the dangers of a very real public disapprobation – of what was morally right in copyright law over what was easier, at least at the time, to popularly maintain.
Where I’m really not sure if I agree or not is in the conclusions we seem to be drawing in this piece. Are we really saying that Dickens’s brave battle against zero rights in the lifetime of a real person and creator is comparable to the battle being raged by corporate figures whose ultimate intention is to ensure that modern content industries will never have to contribute to the public domain they have – even where productively – clearly pillaged for their own benefit?
The other day, for example, I read that just Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” had been filmed in over fifty different film and TV versions – which is, of course, as it should be for a work by a man long dead. I have, however, yet to see any moves to release into a similarly enriching and shared commons other characters and tales from the very 20th century arts that currently occupy those of us worried about the Internet and freedom of speech.
And until I do, I’m afraid appeals like Savater’s will be falling on my relatively deaf ears.
Not because I’m taking the easy way out, though. After all, the easy way out is for mugs.
As well as for businesspeople unwilling to effectively re-engineer their traditional and other-century business models.