// reviews, reading, apocalypse, gondolas, wuv
Review time! Since the start of the year I’ve been trying to eke out half an hour to read each day between Aidan going to bed and me getting back to work. So far it’s mostly been successful. Consequently, I’ve finished a couple of books in the last week or two.
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)
A little-known book that hardly anyone has read and whose lack of press has been mystifying. I’m joking, of course; I’m also way, way late to the party on this. Nevertheless, it’s a great book. A strain of superflu wipes out most of humanity in the space of a week or so, and twenty-odd years later, a touring company of actors and musicians goes from settlement to settlement in the ruins of the Great Lakes region.
So far, so apocalypse. But this isn’t really an apocalyptic novel. It’s a character piece, following various people tied loosely together by an actor who dies onstage the night the flu breaks. One of the children in the production (the main character, such as there is), the ex-paparazzi paramedic who tries to save him, his former best friend, two of his ex-wives, and his son, and Arthur himself.
The prose is butter-smooth and quite wonderful to read, the characters are all well-drawn and suitably complex, and particularly nicely, it’s not apocalypse porn. There’s the opening section with Jeevan (the ex-pap) which largely explains the disaster, and some “here’s what happens to them” showing the flu hitting through the eyes of most of the others when their individual stories (told largely as flashback) reach that point, but of the years between zero and twenty, very little is said outside a Year Fifteen interview with Kirsten, the former child actor. The world of the Symphony and Kirsten (who never, despite a skill with knives, falls into Hunger Games fighting woman cliché come the nicely understated climax) is tough, but it’s not a case of fending off raiders and scavenging for food every three pages. Things have settled down, and while there are lawless elements, and the main antagonists, it’s just a different world, not a total ruin. And the world before it, of Arthur and those who pass through his orbit, is equally fascinating and leads you to care for all these people, even the ones who don’t make it.
Very, very good. If I had to split hairs - and I don’t but will because I’ve come this far - the ending reads a little uncertainly to me, as though Mandel wasn’t quite sure what point to close on (various things are tied up in summary, in turn, Return Of The King-style, that might have been left), Arthur’s final day decision to throw off his worldly riches and fame and move to be with his son just before he dies felt unnecessary and somewhat out of character - he was better, I think, as a flawed but ultimately decent sort struggling with the life he’d chosen, and I have the strong impression that the short glimpse of Jeevan’s life in Year Twenty felt like a later draft addition. I imagine an editor saying, “You can’t just leave him walking out of Toronto and never show the reader what happened to him!” What we see of his life a thousand miles away is largely without consequence - he’s happy enough, settled enough, and far from the main location of the Symphony’s orbit - and his one-step-removed passing encounter with the main antagonists read a little tacked-on.
Those are really all the hairs I can split, and they are tiny and really didn’t spoil a thing (note, too, that they’re all late-on in the book, by which point it’s built up more than enough credit to buy them off). It’s a great book and thoroughly deserves all the praise it’s had. I’ve not read any of Mandel’s other novels, but I’d do so happily on the back of this one.
Across The River And Into The Trees (Hemingway)
Another little-known author. This is famously one of Hemingway’s most criticised novels, and also the one in which he most attempted, and failed, to apply the Iceberg Theory to his writing. Colonel Cantwell, who has a bad heart and various old wounds after serving in both world wars, particularly the first in Italy, is on his way to Venice for some duck hunting. Here he meets up with the young contessa, Renata, he’s in love with, and reminisces, with her and others, and alone, about his military past. The shoot, when it finally happens, leads to him having a heart attack and dying.
Seriously, there’s not much story there, but that’s not uncommon in Hemingway’s work. I’ve read a couple before, and I enjoy his style of writing. The Colonel is a great character, mostly, truculent, abrasive, but warm and caring when he wants to be, probably the best character I’ve come across in Hemingway. It’s interesting to see, too, how many of his conversations are similar in tone and approach to those in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (which I reread for the zillionth time earlier in the year). He’s a lot of fun to follow.
Until he starts talking about love with Renata and it all falls apart for chapter after chapter. Most of Hemingway’s dialogue is great, naturalistic and free-flowing. But as soon as a man gets emotional with the woman he loves, they both turn into infatuated, “no, I love you more” teenagers. There are elements of it in other stories, but it’s at its worst by far here, and there simply isn’t enough to justify it. Wikipedia tells me Renata was based on a real 19-year-old Hemingway was obsessed with at the time of writing, and I’d have to say it shows in buckets.
However. However. Despite there being not much of a story as such, Cantwell’s a good character, his history and its interweaving with that of the Veneto is engaging, and there’s plenty to keep you rolling along. Hemingway is never, at the very least, prone to waffle. Just skip the “I wuv oo” mid-section if you don’t want to be grating your teeth as you read.
Next up, another little-known novel by an obscure writer: I’m a little way into No Country For Old Men.
// politics, future, nonsense, wallofwords
The Labour Party has many flaws and clearly needs to rebuild, both its own beliefs and its relationship with the electorate. As a thought experiment - obviously clearly based on my own decades of deep involvement with political planning and strategising; someone send this to Labour HQ pronto - I wondered how you’d go about reestablishing the party for the modern age. This lengthy essay is therefore that. It may all be wrong, and a large part of it is simply wishful thinking, but that’s the joy of thought experiments: they’re ones that will likely never, ever be put into practice.
Muddled messages: The last campaign was a flop, trying too hard to be all things to all people rather than sticking to core principles, leaving measures like an end to the bedroom tax and non-dom status to float in a sea of mediocrity.
Disconnect from voters: While this is a problem for all parties to some extent, the rise of a professional political class has affected Labour most. The concerns of the middle and upper classes are most similar to those of professional politicians, so the Tories and, to a lesser extent, Lib Dems are a closer match, albeit by accident, for their core voter demographic. Labour’s top dogs are a world apart from their traditional supporters, and this lack of connection has allowed parties like UKIP, rightly or wrongly, to sneak in.
Old Labour is disconnected too, to some extent. The working class has changed with the gutting of manufacturing and the weakening of the big industrial unions. Outside the (comparatively) few remaining industrial areas, the modern working class are self-employed, shop staff, delivery drivers, call centre workers, people on minimum-low wages, white collar as well as blue, part time or unemployed. They’re increasingly the young, too. And more and more of them are immigrants to this country.
Reputation issues: Labour has a reputation for financial mismanagement from the crash of 2008 (ironic, given Brown’s previous reputation for steady fiscal policy in his years as Chancellor), and for lying over Iraq during the Blair years. Both have left people with the impression that the party is fundamentally untrustworthy on big issues.
Awful media relations: The British press is, in the main, openly hostile towards the party, and have a history of pulling front-page hatchet jobs and outright lies, with maybe a small, inconsequential retraction a few days later. Blair managed to swing it a little for a while, but that was as much down to the Major government’s inadequacies as anything else.
Very poor support outside the big cities: Whether as a result of a lack of engagement or wealth distribution, Labour does very badly across much of the country. Rural left-wingers in the South are more likely to vote Lib Dem than Labour and in other parts they’re turning to UKIP or nationalist parties.
Scotland: Choices made during the ’No’ campaign and failed attempts to drum up anti-SNP sentiment, not to mention a catalogue of failures, gaffes and the inability to come up with a reason why Scots might want to stick with them saw a revenge thrashing north of the border.
Boundaries: This Parliament is almost certain to see boundary changes. It’s hard to make a definite case against them in principle (though there may well be in the details) because there are clear inequities in the present system due to population shift. Changes will make it harder for Labour to win outright because the current ones make it too easy. Labour are going to have to lump this and plan accordingly, because if it comes up in the Commons, only a backbench rebellion will defeat it.
Existing support: Yes, it’s been drifting away for more than a decade, but Labour still has plenty of members, infrastructure and influence, minor or major, across most of the country. It can’t outspend the Tories and shouldn’t try, but it has some funds and plenty of manpower, in theory at least. Union backing is a double-edged sword, but it still counts for something.
Reduced Blairites: While they’re still around in patches, the last couple of defeats - and the Milliband leadership - have seen ’New Labour’, with all its post-Iraq tarnish, largely shaken off or at least shunted into the background.
Economic inequality: While the overall economy may have recovered a little from the crash, much of that recovery has been concentrated at the top and in London. A great many people are continuing to struggle with poverty, with a difficult jobs market, with the cuts to public services imposed by the last government and the massive fresh ones coming in the next. There are also likely to be another 1-2 million public sector workers sacked in the coming Parliament. These are the people Labour should be representing.
A fresh start: It’s easier to rebuild completely when everyone accepts that the old structure is rotten.
So, you’re Labour and that’s what you’ve got to tackle and that’s what you’ve got to work with. What do you do?
Build up from the bottom: You lack grassroots connections and clear support. Get back involved with those most needing help. Start by reaching out to the new working class and the disadvantaged, rural as well as urban. Get to know what their problems and concerns are, and turn those into policy.
But to foster connection, you need to offer something concrete now; the next election is five years off. You need to show that you can - and will - give something back to those who need it most. Your union past should help here, because while the new working class aren’t heavily unionised (apart from anything else, jobs are so short-term now that it’s hard to hold a workplace together), you know what unions traditionally offer (or are supposed to offer) workers. You can do that too, ad-hoc. This should be something you’re good at. Use your network of volunteers, members and supporters to hold local drop-in sessions across as much of the country as possible, offering guidance on finding work or childcare, on dealing with paperwork, bureaucracy and local authorities, on workplace rights and finding representation, on financial assistance and management, on parenting on a pittance, on voter registration and where to find impartial political information. Forge links with your local communities by actively helping them regardless of whether or not you’ve been elected there. Follow-up, don’t forget. Make friends. Don’t push the party, don’t tout for votes, don’t involve politics at all if possible. If you do it cynically, you’ll lose voters. But you have all the resources needed to pull off this kind of operation. The old, old days of a Labour club in every town centre are gone, but there’s nothing to stop you creating a replacement for the modern era.
And listen. Use what actually concerns real people to form policies and priorities higher up. And where you can’t make something policy, be sure that there’s a pipeline by which you can explain yourselves, cleanly and clearly without wriggle words. Don’t talk down to people (something you’ve been prone to doing the last few years). Carry that all the way up to the top.
Such a move would likely initially be met with cynicism and derision, and it would eat into party funds (though probably not as much as it might; you’d probably have to cut back a couple of big PR events a year), but stick at it.
I can’t, off the top of my head, think of a better way of reconnecting with your core support on a fundamental level. It’s not enough to encourage people to vote for you; you need to show that you’re their party, not just tell.
Do the same thing online: You can’t get to everyone in person, but running advice and support online is relatively cheap and simple. Borrow from Howard Dean’s 2004 run and make proper use of the internet. Don’t push the party or for votes - we’re not the US and that won’t fly - but engage with people.
Link worker to employer: Help out too by talking with local businesses and promoting schemes to get people into work and to ensure fair conditions and good workplace relations. You’ve got union connections; use them. This connects you on a more personal level to business owners. It won’t help the wider perception of your financial skills, but it’ll dispel the notion that you’re anti-business without you having to sell out your supporters.
Soothe the middle class: You spent the Blair years avoiding ‘tax and spend’ and largely did a good job of it, so remind people of that. Protect childcare provisions, restrict tax rises to those who can afford it - and point out that that’s why you’re doing it. Carefully cost and cover every policy you introduce. Show your working out. If you need to, point to the past government’s mismanagement on this score.
Dispel misinformation, don’t employ any yourself: One of the early moves of the Obama White House was to offer their own fact-checking via the White House blog. Employ someone to correct false claims (like that Times “Labour will cost families £1,000 a year” front page they later retracted) quickly, succinctly, and with cross-linked citations. Make it shareable through social media. Make sure spokespeople follow these and can refute claims in person when needed, knowing they’re backed up by data. The flip side is to stop using refutable claims yourselves. Have cites. When you speculate, say you’re speculating. Don’t leave anyone a “gotcha”. You’ve gotten better at this in recent years, although perhaps largely by comparison. Keep getting better at it and it will help shake off the mistrust left over from Blair.
Own your mistakes: Accept past failings, show how you’ve learned from them. Point out, where your opinions have changed, that it’s madness not to change your mind if it turns out the evidence is against you; doing otherwise makes you an idealogue (as with “prosperity through austerity”). Don’t try to dodge them. Again, don’t leave a “gotcha”.
Listen, then set out your stall clearly, and back it up: Stop trying to be the Tories. They’re much better at it than you. If you reconnect with your core demographic, focus on what needs to be done to make their lives better, then work to point out how doing so will also help those beyond. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Where you disagree, do so firmly, and back up your arguments with evidence. People will respect that more than if you try to slide around them. Claiming “we will control immigration” last time out made it obvious you were trying to keep up with the UKIPs out of fear, not out of personal belief on the subject. There were arguments to be made - and plenty of people made them, just not you.
Don’t allow other people to control the conversation: The Tories deliberately pushed you into talking about the SNP all the time. All you needed to say was: “Until the election happens it’s pointless discussing things, but if any kind of coalition is necessary then every responsible party would seek compromise and common ground where it can. Maybe it could be, maybe it couldn’t. Since the SNP are a democratically-elected party no different to any other in the Commons, why should we treat them any differently? Or are you suggesting we should ignore Scotland’s electorate?” (Not that you could, having tried to drum up anti-SNP sentiment the year before.)
Be confident in where you’re standing - and the grassroots support you have, if you have it, vitally - and you leave the opponent with nowhere to go. The Lib Dems in the 90s were quite clear that they wanted to scrap council tax and replace it with a local income tax, and to raise the top rate of income tax to 50%. Lots of people didn’t necessarily agree with them, but there was comparatively little hay to be made of those policies because they were so clear and open about them. They knew their supporters backed them, and they didn’t have to keep them a secret or fudge their commitment to them.
Sort out your Scottish arm: Frankly, it’s a mess. If Scotland remains part of the UK after this parliament - and let’s not bank on that - you need to offer something to the country that the SNP, which has already occupied much of your old socialist territory, doesn’t. Make up with the SNP as well because an unnecessary chip on your shoulder is deeply unattractive.
Ignore the press: Seriously, they’re never going to like you, so stop bothering to try. People, especially the young, will respect you more if you stand up to Murdoch and his ilk than if you keep trying to play nice. This is another reason to make sure of your ground before making claims, and be absolutely scrupulous in how you operate, because everyone but the Guardian will be looking to cut you off at the knees. Again, own it.
Forget immigration controls: Again, others are going to own this battlefield. Many immigrants - who are eligible to vote, don’t forget - are within your key demographic. Point to the plethora of evidence that in a stable economy, immigrant workers are net contributors to the economy and that they don’t reduce the job market (since they’re also spending, and spending supports further jobs). Fix the economy and keep it stable, and immigration at its normal rate ceases to be an issue. You’ll take a battering from the press again, but stick with it because you cannot win by aligning with the right on this.
Forget benefits: Benefit fraud is miniscule, “shirkers” are few and far between, after pensions most benefits are paid to those in work and not out of it, and people get off JSA not by being sanctioned or put through workfare but by the economy picking up and more jobs being made available. (Not that this will happen endlessly; ever-greater automation, centralisation (compare staff numbers in warehouse + online operations vs. warehouse + local retail outlet operations) and corporate efficiency drives mean that the jobs market in many sectors will contract over time.) Unless you’re thinking of costing a universal citizen’s income, forget getting sucked into benefits arguments and concentrate only on economic growth. Just don’t forget to explain why.
Forget the wealthy: You’ve got wealthy backers, people with cash but also an ideological inclination towards doing good for those less well off. You don’t have to court those people, and you don’t gain anything by trying to court those who don’t share those beliefs; they have nothing to gain from voting for you anyway. Don’t arbitrarily stiff them, but concentrate your efforts on the grassroots up, not vice versa.
Solve housing: This ties into the last, and it’s a big one. We all know the pressure on housing availability: soaring rents unmatched by wages, soaring prices that push ownership beyond many, low rates of building, a rising population. This really, really needs fixing, and it’s one of the few areas where the old Labour love of ‘benevolent big government’ is going to be the only way of doing it. Left to the market alone, housing will only become more of an issue. Maybe it’s rent controls (with, say, some kind of minimum income-protection provision for single-property landlords like those relying on rent for retirement). Maybe it’s a mansion tax with a protection for those who’ve simply lived in one place in London for long enough that they’ve ended up owning something worth a stupid amount of money through no real fault of their own. Maybe it’s some kind of clever mechanism for connecting a per-size price cap with local average earnings. Maybe it’s a subsidy for new, sustainable housing funded by a tax on large, old properties. I’m not an economist, but you employ plenty of them. Get cracking on this, and make absolutely sure you check your facts and figures because it’ll be controversial, you’ll take another hammering from the Mail, and you’ll have to sell it to the middle class. It’s an area where you could really set out your stall, though. Your core voters need somewhere to live, and the middle class have kids who are already struggling to earn enough to leave home.
Solve pensions: No one likes to suggest the state pension is in danger, but we all know it is. As the population lives longer, the pot has to stretch further. Again, I’m not an economist, but old people vote, and anything you can come up with that protects pensions even a little will be a massive winner.
Back the NHS: The Tories are massively weak here, and you should’ve made much more of it last time out. Very few people want to see privatisation, and there’s plenty of evidence for it happening should you want to point people at it, and not a lot the Tories can do to wiggle around it.
Couch as much as you can in terms of fairness: As a nation, we tend to think of ourselves as quite a fair bunch. It’s easier to sell - or harder to argue against - a 50% upper tax rate, say, if you point out just how many teachers such a rate rise will employ or how many public services or basic pensions it’ll fund. If you’re going to take, explain what you’re going to give in return. Don’t promise something for nothing and try to weasel around mentioning what the actual cost might be.
Have people who talk like human beings: Stop making so many of your top people those with little life outside politics, and if they are, at least allow them to relax a little in public. It makes them come across like robots carefully programmed to avoid making a promise they can’t go back on. As much as it pains me to say so, you could learn from UKIP here. Farage’s bluster and “man with a pint” image might be a load of tosh, but at least he sounds human. Humans, it turns out, respond well to humans.
Explain as much of it as possible in two sentences or less: Blair almost single-handedly popularised the policy sound bite. And say what you like about him, he knew how to get elected despite such controversial policies as introducing a minimum wage (in the teeth of opposition from both Tories and, to their discredit, Lib Dems). Two lines, what and why, and how if you’ve got space. This is the digital age, so if you’re doing it in text or in press release, have cites and links to proper explanations ready. But keep your messages tight, specific, and easy to digest.
Don’t build a sodding obelisk: Seriously, just don’t.
So what have we learned from last night?
The Lib Dems surged in popularity last time out, riding a wave of disappointment with Labour and the bright hopes of many that they could be a new force on the left. A force which immediately jumped into bed with a soon-nakedly Thatcherite administration and allowed them to stamp all over the very people who’d elected them with no sign that they might ever do anything to stop them. Having widely disenfranchised their own electorate, and left floating centrist voters picked up from the Tories no real reason to stick with them since they were basically the same thing, regardless of what claims were made during the campaign, the resulting bloodbath shouldn’t be a surprise. Even under PR they’d have taken a hammering. The LDs should’ve learned a lesson from this and I doubt we’ll see another ConDem government in my lifetime.
Labour crippled themselves in Scotland by Torying-up over the SNP and the referendum, and did themselves no favours in England by running a mess of a campaign that couldn’t resist borrowing from everyone else in a bid to be popular. Copying the other kids doesn’t work at school and it didn’t work here. They could’ve done their best to stamp their mark as a party of the poor and the poorly-paid, focused on the NHS, workfare, tuition fees, rising inequality and the like, but only briefly played with these in between trying desperately to get chummy with the upper middle class while keeping a finger or two in UKIP’s pocket. When you’re handing out mugs emblazoned with “Labour: # Controls on immigration” and your brightest idea is a fucking obelisk, you’re in trouble.
They’re aren’t enough arseholes in any one place to make UKIP a valid force under the FPTP system.
People in England, unless, like in Scotland, there’s an overriding reason to want someone out, don’t vote, often because they don’t feel informed enough - or motivated enough - to do so. When the primary concern of most media outlets is keeping corporate advertisers happy in order to stay in business (cf. the Telegraph and HSBC), and politicians clearly aware that lying about the Other Ones in as soundbite-friendly a manner as possible while making sure you never make a promise you can’t wriggle out of or forget is a successful strategy, I can’t blame them. Voters are treated like dairy cattle and weary cynicism and apathy shouldn’t be a surprise.
The print media in the UK - a largely left-wing country by percentage - is overwhelmingly right-wing and any pretence of impartiality after this election would be laughable.
Whoever spends, wins. See also: media, ad revenue, lying.
With everyone bar the Greens running a negative campaign in England (I can’t speak for elsewhere), no one gave anyone a reason to vote for them rather than against someone else. When even the Guardian is running a chart of ’who to vote for if you hate these guys’ - for both Tory and Labour, we’re in trouble.
All the hashtags in the world don’t matter. Neither does shrilly yelping at people, “We fought and died for the right to vote!”
So the Tories will go on selling off everything that’s not nailed down for the next five years and blaming the poor for being work-shy slackers, questions will go on lingering about just how long Scotland will stay in the Union without some kind of devo-max outcome (unlikely under Dave), and Labour and the LDs have five years to sort their bloody shit out. We’ll also have to hope that someone’ll come up with a way of actually reaching and informing prospective voters in that time.
And maybe I’ll have a unicorn that craps cheesecake by then as well.
// writing, DOOOOM, copyright, greens, walloftext
Yesterday, someone happened across a Green Party policy document online that called for a maximum 14 years’ copyright protection and the UK’s literary internet collectively shat the bed.
Now, the Greens haven’t covered themselves in glory here, claiming the document is not the manifesto but a vague “wouldn’t it be nice if” wishlist and can therefore be ignored, that the document is out of date (link lost somewhere), or that it was probably meant to be “life plus 14 years”. It’s either lying or a disorganised mess, or both. (And knowing lefty/hippy groups and how cliquey and riddled with a lack of internal communication they can be, I could well believe a little from Column A and a lot from Column B.)
It’s a policy that is about as likely to be implemented (requiring, as it does, the UK to leave the Berne Convention and the party to somehow survive the massed hostility of every media outlet and format in the country) following a Green majority in Parliament as having a Green majority in Parliament in the first place, so on the “realistic threat to authors’ livelihoods” scale it’s somewhere around the “asteroid wipes out all life on earth” mark.
It’s also wrong to say, “The Green Party is trying to shaft authors!” If you do, you’re clearly overestimating how important authors and books in general are. Talk about copyright and file-sharing and most people will jump to music, movies, and software/games, probably in that order. I wish, as an author and someone who loves both reading and writing, that it wasn’t so, but as much as most people enjoy an occasional book, and as much as avid readers do exist in comparatively small numbers, books are a minor feature in the great cultural smorgasbord of modern life. Based in part on the academic work behind it, I very much doubt books crossed the minds much of those who wrote that very, very short policy note.
That said, as a medium, books - with a wide array of sometimes complex subsidiary and derivative forms - are heavily affected by rights laws. And greatly reducing copyright length is an interesting question, as a thought experiment at least.
The policy is based on a genuinely interesting - if dry - academic paper by Rufus Pollock from 2007 (age worth noting, given its content). In it, he effectively tries to plot a relationship, based in part on (the limited available) empirical data and in part on complicated maths and assumption, between copyright protections/term length, the cost of production of cultural work, the amount of cultural work produced, and works’ relevance and persistence over time, in relation to the changing digital world as it was eight years ago, never mind now, with the aim of identifying the level of copyright protection that maximises the level of art production in all media.
There are, having read it, some issues with the theory that I can see. Firstly, and most importantly, that of visibility over quantity. Treating art as a single volumetric thing ignores the ability of individuals within the mass to be noticed. Anyone at all familiar with self-publishing, in particular, and publishing in general knows exactly how much of a problem this is. In terms of the maths in the paper, you’d need to allow for longer for creators to have their work recognised, and to be paid for it. (The paper notes the assumption that creators won’t incompletely exploit their work’s commercial capacity, recognising it as a flaw at least.) Secondly, that of quality over quantity. While you can talk about broad average cultural impacts and values, there’s clearly - even allowing for subjective tastes - peaks and troughs there. Even 50 Shades, which, love it or hate it has certainly had an impact, is a world above the thousands of shambling, malformed creations apparently written by a six-year-old after a week’s unfettered access to Dad’s DVD collection that lurk in the lower reaches of Amazon’s sales rankings. When you prioritise volume, you risk expanding the shitcano.
Both of those things are, I would think, impossible to accurately quantify in a formula, but both would push the year limit higher. In the paper’s conclusions, it suggests 15 years - and very definitely not “life plus 15” - as the rough centre of the probability distribution, the peak of the bell curve where you can begin to be more confident than not of things being better, but that 30 years is the point of 95% certainty of this term or less being an improvement on the current situation (with smaller changes being progressively more likely to be improvements as the low change reduces negative impacts).
(I suspect that “30 years” would have caused far less consternation, for what that’s worth.)
There are a couple of commonly-shouted objections to reduced term of copyright. Let’s get into those, at least to my way of thinking, right off the bat.
So HBO could have told George RR Martin “14 years? Yoink!” and made Game Of Thrones without paying him.
No, they couldn’t, as I understand it. The change would affect UK law, not US, where his work, which is also copyright there (I imagine), would still be protected. It could be made and broadcast in the UK, but no further. In addition, with the later books being more recent, they’d potentially run into legal issues with regard to character and context anyway, and it’d certainly stunt their ability to continue the series to its conclusion.
It also ignores the effect they’d have if they did that. Martin’s books are so popular that someone wants to make a major TV series out of them. This means that they are popular enough to have a lot of fans, and he has a very high profile. If they made a series without paying him, in an era where the Twitter mob is just itching for an injustice - especially a corporate injustice - to chase, what would be the result? What would the reputation hit do to HBO’s business, its customer base, advertisers, share price, whatever? Reputation is important, and will only become more so.
But I’m not George RR Martin. A movie studio could steal my story and I couldn’t do anything!
Again, you’re probably overestimating. Why would someone want to make a movie out of your shitty book? Slightly more seriously and less deliberately antogonistically, how would they even become aware of your book in the first place, and if they did, is there anything, currently, to stop them stealing the story anyway?
Because the answer is: nothing. So long as they don’t use the characters (and if your book is a relative unknown, they lose no commercial heft by filing all the names off) or any of the text, copyright doesn’t stop that happening anyway. For instance, a US TV series had an episode that happened to be effectively the same as Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead. They didn’t use the text - and copyright protects only the form of expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves - so there was nothing legally that could be done. Likewise, there are movie production companies whose entire output is quick, cheap copies of whatever the next big movie is going to be (there’s a reason that United 93 and Flight 93 both exist). They lift the idea, but not the original material, and copyright does nothing to stop this, and people write for and act in these films as a way of either paying the rent or getting enough credits to score something better.
The thing which does stop outright copying of any story a major studio likes, and the reason they’d be unlikely, even with reduced copyright term, to make your book into a film without paying you, is that they have to work with screenwriters and actors, both of whom have unions likely to frown on unpaid material lifting, and that they rely on press coverage to give them exposure. A repeat of Siegel and Shuster in the modern era - “movie company stiffs hard-working, poor writer” - would be catastrophic, and I can’t imagine a profits-worried studio wanting to run the risk when, even today, rights purchases generally represent small outlays overall.
(I’d probably be more worried if I were a musician; Tarantino would never have to license a song again.)
This just benefits major corporations!
Debatable, as I’ve just argued. If they’re willing to take a PR hit or don’t give that much of a crap, perhaps. But corporate interest is only likely to come your way in the first place if you’ve already been a huge success (just as minnows don’t have to worry about sharks), and even if you haven’t, as I’ve just pointed out, there’s nothing to stop them stiffing you under the current regime already.
This is like making (X Product) for 14 years and then being told you have to let anyone have it! We’ll go bankrupt!
For starters, no. It doesn’t stop you charging money for X Product, it just means other people are free to do so (or give it away) if they wish. Secondly, if you’re worried about business as a primary concern and you only make one product for 14 years - whether that’s one book or one design of novelty toilet roll holder - your business plan is very, very bad. And even then, you’ve had fourteen years of exclusive sales of that one thing. That’s not exactly indentured servitude to the braying masses.
Older writers will be denied royalties that they’d rely on for retirement.
Possibly so, though not guaranteed at all. That writer will still be able to sell their work, just no longer exclusively. And in what other industry is this consideration even a thing? And if you’ve banked on receiving income for past works to see you through your old age, chances are you’ve sold enough for that to happen regardless, even if the hypothetical law wasn’t grandfathered (as it would be; other changes in the past have been as far as I’m aware, and there’d be no other sane way to tackle it), and if you haven’t, you need a pension anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very well aware writing as a profession is very poorly paid (if you even write as a profession in the first place, as opposed to having a day job as well, you’re doing well), and I think supporting the older generation is both important and worthwhile, but it’s also something that’s far more to do with broader political economics than royalties to older writers. Old plumbers don’t get a cut of pipework laid in the years before their retirement. Somehow, they have to survive too.
So, what’s the benefit of a reduced term?
Good question, and harder to answer. In the Pollock paper, they talk about the ability for others to adapt or build upon existing works (citing Shakespeare and the numerous versions of his plays, conversions into other media, and adoption of the plots into other stories as the prime example, though remix/cover/samples in music would also apply), and the freer availability of valuable cultural work to enrich society. Worth noting, too, is that moves to lengthen the term of copyright in the past have largely been driven by large corporations (halloooo, Disney) who want to be able to keep milking the same exclusive cash cow forever and ever, not, largely by individual creators.
The idea behind copyright, as it is at present, that a work’s creator has the right to exploit it commercially for enough time to be properly recompensed for its creation, but that after a while, as art, as something intended for public appreciation in a way that, say, a slab of delicious bacon isn’t, it should become freely available for society to enjoy and make use of (note that I mean “free” as in “freedom” not as in “price”). A sort of very long form ransom model for creative work, a reciprocal arrangement that reflects the fact that art requires an audience, and that art does not exist in a vacuum, that we all to some extent stand on the shoulders of others and we should be willing to take our place in the great human pyramid after a while. Shifting the time limit, as per the paper, recognises that the speed and ease of commercial exploitation is greater in the modern era than at any other time, that the volume of “locked” work is growing ever-greater, and that consequently some adjustment might be to everyone’s benefit.
I don’t have a problem with that in principle. As a worker of any sort, I like to be rewarded for what I do - just as I like eating and having somewhere to live. If I’ve worked on a book, I like to be paid for it. But if I wanted to keep it and its benefits solely to myself, I’d keep it locked in a drawer. By actively seeking readers, I’m already trying to share it on some level. Once I’ve covered what it cost me to write - in time, food and rent - I don’t feel the need for the right to be paid for it in perpetuity. If people want to, hey, great. But I’m happy for that to be a choice, and I’m happy not to treat the world around me like it might be about to shiv me in the ribs at all times. When I self-published all my once-Penguin novels I put them under a Creative Commons license allowing people to share them or create derivatives, so long as no money was involved. I doubt anyone’s ever noticed or given that much of a shit about it, but it’s there.
Other writers are obviously far more worried about their work. “So, what, after 14 years anyone could do anything with your books? Or they could write other stories with your characters? And I wouldn’t get paid a penny? Creators have a right to control what happens to their work!” etc. I can sympathise with that. And there are writers - and other creative types - who drive themselves nuts at the thought of fan fiction and the like (however free-to-read it is) and people messing with their stuff because no way would Gandalf ever get his thang on with Ivor the Engine.
That’s a harder one to argue, because it’s purely a matter of perception. I would say that if you’ve published via the traditional process, you’ve already ceded some control and allowed some outside input simply through being edited (and sure, we all get a veto, but in reality it’s a process of give and take), packaged, marketed and scheduled. We’ve said to someone else: sure, you can call some of the shots, but you pay us and you get us an audience. Since in theory all that happens at copyright’s end is that we’ve been paid and now that society that paid us gets to have its say, the process isn’t, perhaps, a world apart.
And how many of those writers, horrified at the thought of badly-formated free versions, awful knock-offs, a movie studio producing a film without paying them a bean, other people carrying on that series in a way that they hate, how many of them have watched an adaptation or derivation of Shakespeare and loved it? How many love a bit of Beethoven of an evening? On my Easter break I saw the last night of Treasure Island, a story I’ve never given much time to, at the National Theatre, and it was surprisingly great (worth a review of its own if it hadn’t finished its run and I had the time; first time I’ve seen more than a kid’s panto at the theatre in years, and it was astonishing). Robert Louis Stevenson and his heirs didn’t get a penny for it. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about that, 130-odd years after it was published.
And how many of those writers would support copyright in perpetuity, from creator through their estate to their successors? Without perpetual copyright, at some point all these terrible fears will be realised. Would it be merely a case of “over my dead body”?
Copyright is a complex issue at the best of times. While the original policy suggestion that sparked the row is a mess (or at least needs to be more than a couple of lines so that the hypothetical mechanics can be explained), and while everything I’ve said in this vast sea of text could be horribly wrong and easily pulled to pieces, I do think it’s a discussion worth having, and worth having in a way that avoids kneejerk responses from any side.