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This item is taken from PN Review 26, Volume 8 Number 6, July - August 1982.

AT the 1980 Frankfurt Book Fair (PNR 19, 'News & Notes'), the Director General of UNESCO declared that 'copyright is a barrier to the dissemination of information' especially to the Third World. His remarks were made in the light of the spectacular developments in reprography over the last two decades. He urged publishers to encourage cheap, efficient ways of getting information about. We suggested that he was inviting the publishers themselves to contribute to the erosions of copyright.

I now believe he was correct and that I misunderstood the force of his argument. What is more, his observations are pertinent to our own situation in Britain, now.

The development of reprography is an irreversible fact, however distasteful it may be to publishers and writers whose copyrights are violated and who 'get justice' only at great cost. It is a matter of priority-perhaps for the Writers' Guild now that the Pyrrhic victory of PLR has been won-to agitate for an agreement to ensure that violation and wrongful exploitation of copyright are minimized. I am troubled, however, by the interpretation of existing copyright law to the letter by some copyright holders and its clearly deleterious effect on literary culture, education and publishing. Copyright law is in some cases more than 'a barrier to the dissemination of information'. It is a form of censorship.

Let me turn first to publishing. Ten years ago the 'fair dealing' clause of the copyright legislation was liberally interpreted. Critics and scholars were able to quote in their books passages of material covered by copyright, within specific limits, without the costly formality of seeking written permission from copyright holders. Now the American custom prevails here: often permission is requested as a matter of course even for the briefest quotations; in some cases the copyright holder demands a fee for the inclusion of illustrative passages within a critical essay or appreciation. These days critical volumes are normally produced on an extremely modest budget. The cost of seeking permissions itself, and the fees demanded, actually inhibit publication or, by adding to unit cost, circulation of books. Copyright exploited in such a way acts as a censor. Writers profit very little, if at all. Critics learn to skimp on illustrations-though discrete quotation is a high form of criticism-in order to save cost. Copyright holders, once approached, can demand to see the essay in which their work is included and-if they disapprove of it-refuse the right to quote altogether. They present this as a legitimate right of self-defence. It can, however, be seen otherwise: as censorship of critical discussion. Publishing means 'making public'. The writer must accept a certain inevitable vulnerability. Serious criticism cannot proceed very far when quotation rights are withheld.

Increasing damage is being done in the field of education as well, where conditions quite different from those that obtained when the last copyright legislation was drafted now prevail. Few teachers at fifth and sixth-form level and above can get by without reprography. Many publishers grant the right within limits. Others require a fee. And some refuse outright.

A London schoolteacher recently drew my attention to his own experience of copyright practice. After a much-publicized court case in which an educational establishment was found guilty of breach of copyright for copying musical scores, the teacher's headmaster properly required his staff to clear copyright on work they wished to reproduce for their students. 'I would normally assume', the teacher told me, 'that poets would want their works read, and that my school use of them was ethically-if not at present legally-legitimate.' After all, the sympathetic presentation of work in extract might tempt students to the bookshop. All the same, he wrote off to the publishers involved, seeking permission to make thirty copies of extracts for his sixth-formers. Some publishers agreed, some asked modest fees. This is the reply he received from a leading London publisher:

I am afraid that this is a very difficult request since it appears that what you are really wanting to do is to make up your own anthology for use in your course. What we would like to suggest to you is that you give the sixth-formers a list of the material which you would like them to look at and help them to do their research in their local libraries. We would not be able to let you make photocopies of 10 pages of poetry without the payment of a fee and from all points of view this would be very difficult to administer.

Such a response reveals-as any teacher at any level knows-an astonishing ignorance of the realities of modern education, modern school and civic libraries, and modern children. It is also an abdication of responsibility to the public and to the author. The publisher did not even request a fee-thus he cannot pretend to have served the author unless the argument is that thirty schoolchildren might purchase ten £7.00 books in order to read sixty or seventy pages of them.

The British Copyright Council circulates a cautionary leaflet that sets out 'the essential facts'. For 'private use' a 'reasonable portion' of copyright material can be copied: 'a single extract of up to 4000 words, or a series of extracts (none over 3000 words) totalling up to 8000 words but neither may exceed 10% of the whole work.' Pocket calculators are not supplied. 'Poems, essays and other short works are treated as complete works' and permission must be obtained to copy them. Multiple copies 'may not be made without prior permission and payment may have to be made. If in doubt, you should ask the publisher of the work.' The actual typography of books published since 1957 is copyrighted for 25 years.

Those guidelines would have been reasonable a decade ago. 'Copyright is designed,' the leaflet remarks, 'to protect the livelihood of creators and producers of literary, dramatic, artistic and musical work'. The intention is to encourage, where possible, the purchase of books. Ten years ago one could afford books. Now, apart from the inhibition of cost-which beggars hard-pressed libraries and educational institutions quite as much as it does individuals-there is the insurmountable inhibition of unavailability. Publishers just cannot afford to keep certain titles in print-stock maintenance costing what it does-and new books sometimes disappear or are remaindered after nine or ten months. In the Literary Review Charles Causley listed just a few of the Collected Poems now out of print: Spender, Barker, Campbell, Heath-Stubbs, Sassoon, Watkins . . . and Patrick Cos-grave reflected that the literary criticism of J. V. Cunningham 'is unavailable to anyone without access to a university library'. Examples could be multiplied. Publishing, which used to be akin to forestry, thriving on good husbandry, increasingly resembles the fast food business.

The development of comprehensive education and increasingly flexible curricula means that each course, each class, will require different texts or selections from texts. Publishers in the present economic world cannot be expected to provide the variety of texts and anthologies necessary. Teachers will be wanting 'to make up [their] own anthologies' year by year. They must be able legally to do so. No publisher should-without proper reason-deny them that need. Schools and teachers are willing to pay pro rata fees to produce ten, twenty or thirty copies of a poem, a page of prose, a short essay. Publishers serve their authors by making them public. It is indefensible to pretend to 'defend rights' by denying them.

As a publisher, I am aware of the arguments 'on the other side'. As a reader and a teacher, however, I can see how irrelevant most of those arguments are. It is time for publishers, authors and agents, as well as readers, educationalists and students, to develop some standard and generally agreed scheme to determine the limitations to be applied to reprography, the level and payment of realistic fees, and the conventions of exercising the scheme efficiently. Otherwise, price and unavailability of texts will turn the republic of letters into a republic of pirates.

We should, I think, be reluctant to depend upon legislation. In July 1981 the Government Green Paper on Reform of the Law relating to Copyright, Designs and Performers' Protection was published and shelved in favour of more urgent business such as educational cuts. The Government wants to continue talks even though the Whitford Committee reported four years ago. The 'lively public debate' that the Government called for has been inaudible. The British Copyright Council-which is lobbying Parliament on the issue-'dissents most emphatically' from the suggestion that copyright laws should be framed in the light of prevailing economic conditions. The 'transitory circumstances of the contemporary economic climate or current government economic policy are not relevant', they declare. In one respect they are right: legislation must be for the medium, not the short term. But the medium term includes an educational system quite differently structured from the one that existed when the last legislation was passed; a publishing industry changed out of all recognition; a library service, too, which is increasingly impoverished by the low priority it is given by Government and by rising administration costs; and a reading public whose choices are reduced by factors over which publishers have less and less control-notably overheads and stock-maintenance. And then there is the growing tribe of writers, some of them distinguished and well on in their careers, whose work cannot profitably be published. These are not transitory factors but established facts which are part of the reality to which the law must address itself. And there is that vexing, beguiling development: reprography. I do not believe any law can control or regulate its use. Only the development of simple agreed procedures within the literary community will protect copyright-as far as that valuable and perilous right can be protected. If some of the present copyright practices continue, it will be increasingly difficult to reach a consensus and piracy will become-if it is not already-the general rule. If we wait upon Government action, we can be sure that it will be another few years before anything gets on to the statute books; and what we find there will, in all likelihood, relate to a world that, by then, will be a memory, as the 1960s are. We will read it with a certain nostalgia, under the Jolly Roger.

This item is taken from PN Review 26, Volume 8 Number 6, July - August 1982.

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