Creative rights

There’s been a small online dustup of a sort I suspect happens more and more often these days–someone posted a piece of art online without permission, and the creators protested. To the original poster’s permission, she proceeded to take the art down.

But the arguments being touted–by poster and creators and bystanders alike–all seem beside the point to me, as they often do in these sorts of discussions. The fundamental point to me seems to be what is also the fundamental principle of copyright law: the owner of the work gets to decide how that work is distributed.

The arguments in this thread, as usual, mostly seem to ignore that. Paraphrased:

But I just put it up for fun. I’m not making any money: True. But the owner of the work gets to decide how it is distributed. If they want the work put up for fun, they will tell you so. Probably by putting a note on the original art to the effect of, “please distribute freely, with credit given.”

But the value of the work increases when I put it online–I’m doing the creator a favor: This may also be true. It may increase immeasureably. The artist might be an utter fool for not allowing their work to be online. But they own it. You don’t. The owner of the work gets to decide how the work is distributed. Whether it’s in their own best interest or not.

Restricting distributing is elitism: Maybe. Maybe the artist shouldn’t be such a snot. But they still get to make the decision to be a snot, and decide how the work is distributed. And no one would call, say, a singer who sang a lullaby to her child, and asked that it not be recorded, an elitist for not sharing it with the world. Different creations are for different audiences.

But information wants to be free: Yes, it does. But this is a creation, not information. This is like saying your car or your house or your dog want to be free. It may be true, but that doesn’t give me the right to go take them from you. Likewise, you don’t have the right to steal a work from its creator. The owner of the work (or the car or the house or the dog) gets to decide how it’s distributed. I don’t steal your car both because it’s the law and because I respect you as another human being. I’d like to think you respect the creator of a piece of art you’ve enjoyed at least as much.

I should probably add that I think online fanfiction is a grayer area here, since it’s not the same as handing around a scan of the original work. (Offline fanfiction isn’t much on the radar because–with some exceptions–it’s often not being distributed. I have notebooks full of such undistributed work. The online world doesn’t feel much larger than a notebook kept in my bedroom and shared with a friend, but it is–which is part of what makes this complicated.) My own impulse, if I were still writing fanfiction, would probably be to follow the wishes of the original author, if they were known.

For my own work–I’m still pondering what my policy would be, should it ever come up. My take is still evolving; right now it amounts to: I would be deeply honored, so long as nothing were distributed for profit; and I would also regretfully need to make a policy of not reading the resulting works, because it would both muddle my own creative process, and create potential legal problems if something I read either matched something I was already working on.

How do other published writers feel about fanfiction, and what are your policies, if you have any?

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