I was contacted by a web surfer, and fellow writer, who pointed out how skittish many writers are to publish their work on the web, especially fiction writers. He brought up a very real concern that he and many others have: the web will show the work to parts of the world where international copyright treaties either do not apply or are not very well enforced. What about the person in Hong Kong who might take the work and claim it?
As a writer myself, I am very aware of the web publishing issue which he remarks. I think it important to remember that copyright is copyright, in those parts of the world that recognize International Copyright treaties. Copyright is assumed to belong to the author unless it is otherwise stated. The web format does not change this. However, we all should realize that the hypothetical Hong Kong person can ignore treaties, and likely with no legal consequences. But, copyright infringement and plagiarism are very old vises. Stealing the ideas of another is a practice that was born about 45 seconds after original thought came to be. My point is that though we should be very aware of the real danger of web publishing, we should remember that it does not create a new crime, it makes a very old one, perhaps, a little easier.
However, we should never believe that our work is not in danger of being stolen in print version. There is a reason why copyright law has existed for two centuries. Also consider that even if the exact verbiage we use is not stolen verbatim, if we have a good idea, it is in danger of being stolen; if not, we either didn't really have a very good idea, or we never let it see the light of day. We should all think about all the good ideas we've stolen and revised to suit our own styles. Writers who don't do this are not very far along in their craft; I don't care if they've been writing for years. And if a writer has been writing for years, and claims to have not stolen ideas, I know I have come across a dishonest writer, more than likely.
In short, web publishing our work is certainly a big risk. But, publishing our work has always been a risk. And web publishing offers the potential for very wide exposure. Hence the big risk. I want to be a successful writer. Along with many other elements, that means that I want a very large population of people to read my work, and I hope, like it. Regardless of how that exposure comes about, it does open my work up to greater vulnerability to theft.
This is not to ignore the intangibility of cyberspace as opposed to say, 750,000 paper copies of a novel or magazine (might as well put an optimistic number here, right?). This, I suspect, is at the route of many writers' concerns about web publishing. It is, indeed, the new dynamic of publishing that is the hardest to come to terms with. An author feeling a copy of a magazine in his/her hands with his/her words in it is much more secure than going to a web page and seeing the words on a computer screen.
One must weigh the pros and cons. I do not disagree with the gentleman who began this discussion with me. It's not my place to. Still, I have had a few occasions to meet with established writers. One such writer pointed out that only the good writers who have never published have never been plagiarized. I suggest that some risk of this nature is necessary, or our words will have to stay in the house.
this essay first appeared on the "From K.L.'s Desk"
page in late 1997
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