But it is hard when a good writer friend (good writer and good friend) of mine, Debi Gliori, has been the subject of a misguided and unpleasant campaign which has involved attempts to make people believe she has been guilty of a crime, copyright theft. I would now like to be calm and reasonable by introducing some facts about copyright. I’d been planning to blog about the subject anyway, and, unfortunately, I now have a concrete way to illustrate what copyright is, and what it is not.
If you know me, you know my credentials for talking about artistic integrity, writers’ rights (and responsibilities) and copyright. But if you don’t, let me point out a) that I have written quite a few books (some of which required me to ask permission to quote from other books, or use song lyrics) and b) that I was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, which required me to be fairly well informed about such matters. I am known as a strong supporter of copyright and intellectual property (IP) laws, and was recently called on by the Copyright Licensing Agency to speak about it in public. I say this only so that you know that I am a strong believer in the need for good copyright laws and condemn their infringement.
Copyright and IP laws exist for a two-way reason. They exist to protect the creator from theft but they also exist to allow creators to create, to catch ideas from wherever they come and to create something new from them.
That is why there is no copyright on ideas or on titles. Fact. (IP laws are called on to distinguish other aspects of what can and can’t be owned or protected and by whom. If necessary, I will call on a good writer friend who is also a practising IP lawyer, to clear up any doubts you may have.)
The next thing to understand is that any artist may paint any subject-matter and any writer may write about anything. (This is not the same as to say that you may write anything: you may not write things that are defamatory, for example. And that includes in blogs, on Twitter or in Facebook comments.)
Once you’ve understood those two things, which are not a matter of opinion but of fact and law, you’ve understood why the whole Tobermory cat shenanigans is so wrong. Not only is there no copyright on ideas or titles, there is no copyright on cats. Did I really just say that?!
But I want to say more than this. It’s about creativity. Creative people are creative not because of where they get their ideas but because of what they do with them. That’s what creativity is; anyone can have an idea but a creator, whether visual or verbal, is someone who creates something new, even if from an old idea. And two people having the same idea will create two different things from it. That’s the beauty of creativity.
It’s not just stories, but non-fiction, too. You could write a piece about copyright, inspired by this blog post, and you could even give it the same title; you’d also be entirely permitted to make the same points, because I do not own the points or ideas. What you mustn’t do, unless you want to break the law and show yourself as uncreative, is copy it (or a substantial part of it) without my permission. So, you mustn’t use my choice of words. (And yes, of course, there might be some argument about how close your words are to mine, and that’s when a court might need to step in and judge whether you’d copied them or simply accidentally come up with the same wording. That’s hypothetical, by the way – I am most unlikely to sue. I’m too busy and too poor.)
You could ask ten writers to come up with a story about and/or called The Tobermory Cat and they’d all be different. And they could all publish them. It’s not likely that they would, but they could. And it would be hardly surprising if several of them were about the cat becoming a celebrity, since that’s patently what he is; and no one owns the fact that he is a celebrity. You can’t own a fact or an event. In fact, I’m quite tempted to write a story about a celebrity ginger cat called the Tobermory Cat, (because he’s a cat who lives in Tobermory) who becomes so pissed off by things done and spoken in his name, that he slips away in the night and comes to live in Edinburgh, where no one notices him and he lives happily ever after. And you know what: you may use that idea, even without my permission.
The only thing a writer has the rights to is the story he or she wrote. Not the title. And not other stories about the same cat and with the same title. Including stories that haven’t yet been written or imagined.
Is that clear?
People, please respect copyright. Please respect creativity. Ideas are easy: everyone has them. It’s what you do with them that is creativity.
Edited to add: Some trenchant and pertinent comments on this Absolute Write thread. It’s really important to get this stuff right and to spread the word about copyright, to save other people a lot of unnecessary stress on both sides.
Comments: I welcome questions and comments about copyright and IP laws. If I can’t answer them I’ll see if my IP lawyer friend has time. I do not welcome and will not tolerate any further abuse of Debi or any vitriol levelled against either side. This is a post about copyright. It seeks to educate.