Sunday, December 09, 2007

We’re only after your money

There is a very sour little piece in this Saturday’s Guardian from Wendy Cope on copyright. I should say first of all that I must acknowledge a few items:
1. Cope is right to say that a poem is much more likely to get copied (either digitally or on paper) and downloaded than an entire book – in that sense, poets are especially vulnerable to copyright violations.
2. It’s mostly damned hard making a living as a writer, and perhaps especially so as a poet, so some sensitivity to potential earnings lost seems reasonable.

But it seems rather sad to see a writer of any sort so bitterly possessive about their words. To read Cope’s piece, one might imagine that she sits scribbling away resentfully, thinking each time she finishes a poem, ‘Now, get out there and earn your keep, you little sod.’ Now, to be honest, my rather limited experience of Cope’s work tallies rather well with the notion that bitterness is one of her prime motivations, but this piece seemed so jealous of every last penny potentially denied her that one wonders why she doesn’t just throw in the towel and become a plumber. Indeed, it seems to me that she doesn’t even truly understand why people read or buy poetry. Why, if anyone genuinely loved her poems, would they be content to download a few from the web and, and then – well, then what? File the printouts? Poetry lovers must be among the most bookish people in the world – they surely relish having the books on their shelves, rather than just scanning their eyes briefly over a piece of downloaded text and then binning it.

‘You want to read my poems? Then buy the book’, is Cope’s crabby refrain. Does she pull her volumes off the shelves of public libraries, I wonder? What is particularly dispiriting about this little rant is that it gives no sense of writing being about wanting to share with people ideas, images, thoughts and stories – and recognizing that this will never happen solely through the medium of books sold – but that it is instead about creating ‘word product’ that you buggers must pay for.

No source of income is too minor or incidental that its possible loss is not begrudged. Other people reading your poems at festivals is no good, because you might not get your little commission for it. (You get paid just for standing up and reading out old words? What the hell are you complaining about?) Another thing I find odd, although perhaps it just shows that things work differently in the poetry world, is that Cope is so covetous of every last book sale because of its financial rewards. In non-fiction at least, if you’re the kind of writer who gets a substantial part of your income from royalties, as opposed to pocketing a modest advance that might with great luck be paid off in ten years’ time, then you must be selling so many books that you shouldn’t need the supplement of £1.20 for a book sale that comes from someone’s refusal to copy one of your poems and give it to friend.

But what caps it all – and indeed reveals the pathology of Cope’s obsession – is her anger and regret that all those possible royalties are going to be lost when you’re dead. “I sometimes feel a bit annoyed by the prospect of people making money out of my poems when I’m too dead to spend it”, she moans. Well personally, Wendy, if someone keeps my words alive when I’m not, I’ll be over the bloody moon, and I don’t give a damn what they make from doing so.


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