How Can Words Be Property?

I just can’t put down this book by Robert J. Sawyer. Mindscan is a great read that actually touches on some interesting issues concerned with the act of writing. It is an entertaining book and fun to read but it keeps giving me things to think about. Today, it has me thinking about copyright issues and the idea of intellectual property.

One of the debates over intellectual property is how long it should remain protected. Should copyright laws protect intellectual property forever or should the works fall into public domain as they do now? It’s an interesting debate and the characters in Sawyer’s novel touch on it.

The author character talks to Jake, the inherited owner of a profitable brewery. She talks about how intellectual property is only protected for so many years after the author’s death and then she relates it to Jake’s situation.

And you benefit financially from that to his day. Should the government instead have confiscated all the assets of Sullivan Brewing, or whatever the company’s called, on the seventieth anniversary of Old Sully’s death? Intellectual property is still property, and it should be treated the same as anything else human beings build or create.

This is a very good argument. Writers spend a lot of time building up a catalogue of work. Why shouldn’t their efforts be passed down to their children and grandchildren the way businesses are? Instead, their work becomes public after they die. Is this fair?

I don’t think too many people think about this. I know that I don’t give it as much attention as I should.

I’m an avid reader. I love books. I have bookcases and bookcases full of books at home but by far, the vast majority of what I read, I don’t pay for. Most of what I read comes from the library. I guess the library has to pay for the books so the authors still get paid. I must confess, I never really thought of this before today. I am a huge supporter of the library and will continue to be. I think libraries are a vital part to any community and are far underused, but I think this is a different topic completely. I don’t think any author would complain that their books are in the library. They still have control over those words, how they are used and they still hold the copywrite.

One thing I don’t understand is how books that are written by someone who is long dead, have copyright notices on them. Why does Shakespeare’s work have copywrite notices on the collections? Does the publishing company own those words or just the presentation of them? The words are public domain but the publisher owns the books and presentation of them, how does this make sense?

Writers work hard and deserve to have their work protected. I am not just saying this because I am a writer. I care about my favourite writers and don’t know how I would be here today without them. Is there anything we can do to protect intellectual property?
I think we need to stop asking if words can be property and start thinking seriously about ways to acknowledge and protect intellectual property. Are you with me?