Copyleft and Right

When a public gallery announces that it has been bequeathed the works of a recently deceased artist, the tone is always one of gratitude and praise for the artist’s generosity. Museums and universities accept the papers of retired statesmen and writers with equal gratitude. Such donations, I’m sure, are transacted across several meetings and much legal negotiation. But surely these organisations must receive many such offers from deluded people who think that the public would benefit from their unsold artwork or their notes and correspondence. Do removals vans regularly turn up at national galleries stuffed with a lifetime’s worth of “under-appreciated” watercolours? There must be a certain sweet spot of vanity and public spiritedness at which it becomes plausible for someone to think of donating their work to the public.

The world, online and off, is full of copyright notices that simply reek of self-delusion. Brochure websites with badly aliased logos, unwieldy drop-down menus and ungrammatical copy shamelessly claim responsibility for their content and design. Somewhere in the footer, they  draw a circle around a little “c,” like a self-satisfied cat with its tail curled around its paws, to assert their ownership of the foregoing misguided pixels. This redundant little device  1 is added superstitiously to the bottom of pages, possibly to “look more professional”, as though the content would fall off the bottom without this powerful talisman. This is as paranoid, pre-emptive and discourteous as writing your name on every pint of milk and pack of butter that you put into the office refrigerator.

But there’s also such a thing as foisting your lacklustre home-baked cookies onto your poor colleagues. Creative-commons and open-source mechanisms are, of course, meant to be a sophisticated way round the delusion implicit in announcing to the world that all rights are reserved long before anyone has shown any interest in arguing otherwise.

And yet, when I add the creative-commons licence notice to the bottom of my pages, when I open-source the code for this site, I do it with the same sheepishness as if I had just sent a van stuffed with print-outs of all my emails to the Smithsonian and am anxiously awaiting a little thank-you note full of the appropriate delight and surprise.

This presumption, that anyone is interested in reading, never mind stealing, anything we produce inheres in everything we choose to publish. It is precisely how Vanity Publishing got its name, it is precisely what is being validated, what is being bought off when a publisher buys or commissions a piece. A publisher’s primary function is to guarantee that the present work is not the writer’s delusion but, at worst, a folie à deux. Knowing that a publisher has had to invest a certain amount of money, knowing that that investment carried a certain opportunity cost, reinforces this assurance. Social media buttons have a weaker but similar effect, at least when we can see that a page has been shared by a greater number of people than can be assumed to be the author’s friends and family. 2


  1. 1Copyright is automatic in all signatory countries of the Berne Convention, which is to say almost everywhere.
  2. 2Other points: An established writer, or artist, who can safely assume there is an audience for their work, who is already talking to someone as they write—in the best cases, the ease comes across not as self-indulgence but as the low stakes of a conversation. The derision and accusations of self-indulgence regularly heaped by readers, or at least commenters, at columnists who take this reception for granted.