Monday, April 16, 2007

From World War II to Google Print via the Statute of Anne

John Lanchester has been publicising his new book, Family Romance via a wide ranging article in the Guardian on copyright.

"The broad story of copyright is one of creative individuals feeling they are being stiffed, and that the public interest is losing out as a result. Everyone has a beef about it. This is mine. Between Christmas 1941 and the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945, my grandparents were in a Japanese internment camp in Stanley, at the far edge of Hong Kong island. Many internees died of malnutrition and illness, only three Red Cross parcels arrived during the entire war, and some of their closest friends were tortured and executed by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police and equivalent of the Gestapo.

Personal possessions were scarce. By the end of the war, my grandmother owned only two things: a one cent coin with the middle drilled out, which she wore as a wedding ring, since she had traded her ring away for food in early 1945; and a small pocket diary for 1942, which she must have bought before the fall of Hong Kong. She used that diary for the next three years, writing in pencil, and commenting almost exclusively on food - basically, every time they had something other than rice, she made a note of it.

At the end of the war, the internees were given a typed newsletter that filled them in on what had happened while they were in the camp. (Almost the first thing on it was a remark about the influence of women in all areas of civilian life during the war: "driving buses and working in factories".) At about the time she was given that newsletter, Lannie, my grandmother, must have found a typewriter, because along with the other scraps of paper from this period I found a poem that she, or someone else, had typed out. It was called "A Farewell to Stanley":

A farewell to Stanley - it's over
Of internees there's not a sign
They've left for Newhaven and Dover
For Hull and Newcastle on Tyne.

The poem must have meant a lot to Lannie, or she wouldn't have kept it for the rest of her life; it is, it seems to me, a rather good poem. But you won't find it in the American edition of my book Family Romance, because my American publisher was reluctant to let me quote it. The fact that I couldn't find anything about the poem's author made them too nervous. If I couldn't find him or her - didn't even know whether he or she existed and wasn't a pseudonym - then the poem was probably in copyright and as such couldn't be published."

I love these kinds of anecdotes and include the story of the development of radar in Britain in my own book as an illustration of the reality of information systems development. It is these kinds of stories that make the impact of the abstract concepts like intellectual property clear. Lanchester goes on to talk about the origins of copyright in the UK, the DMCA in the US and the potential of the Google Print project. Recommended.

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