Leevi Lehto: On Writers? Copyrights

A "Writer's Comment" in the Literary Council of Finland's Seminar, Helsinki, October 30, 2006

I will present these comments as a writer whose relation to the copyrights (or «author's rights», as we say in Finnish) has become to be exceptional - both in terms of practical publishing, and regarding strategies of my literary work. For more than ten years now, the Internet has been my primary publishing channel; all my poetry published in book form is available – and freely copyable – online, and I increasingly tend to see the Net as the place of the «first publication» of everything I come to write. I have examined the concept of «Authorship», and the «ideology» of copyright, in my work as well. Thus my prose work,
Päivä (Day, 2004), does not contain a single sentence written by me - in a strict sense, it could be understood as an infringement of copyright, and one could also ask whether it could be seen as protected by it, in turn.

I have also been actively involved in developing new forms of publishing where the book format, with its traditional association with copyright, has been made to live side by side with the free availability of the Net – one example of these being the «poEsia» series of poetry publications, jointly operated by the Poetry Society Nihil Interit and the publishing house Kirja kerrallaan. All the «poEsia» items are freely available online in PDF format, while we also sell them as Print On Demand books. In contrast to the strict notion of copyright, we believe that the free availability (also implying free re-distribution) will not restrict the marketability of the works as books, rather the other way round. Our ideal buyer would first peruse the work online, then buy it only in case she'd really see book to be a more «user friendly» «interface» in her case – say, would like to take the work to bed with her. In fact, this is the only sense in which I, for my part, am still willing to accept the notion of copyright.

As these perspectives belie, I am strongly suspicious about the «ideology» of copyright – as far as it is seen to imply an idea of the Author's unique creative input as a guarantee of the work's individuality. Before going further on this, let me add, however, that I have come to be fully at home with working outside the sphere of copyright – the free availability of my work online brings along many advantages that a more traditional role as a «publishing-house writer» could not offer – such as a global audience with an accompanying incitement to internationalisation, closer, and more variable, contacts with my most immediate readership, etc. My own web site presently receives some 200 «unique visitors» per day, with an average of 500 page loads respectively. I continue to publish in book form as well; with me, however, the above «poEsia» formula has already been reversed: publishing in book form can be seen as a concession to the part of my potential readership that has not yet embraced the advantages of reading online. To me, book is a tool for marketing the online writer, not the other way round.

In my view, the concept of author's rights as such – as will be seen, I feel the term «copyright» to be more adequate – does not have any intrinsic «literary» value. Before the invention of the printing press, a literary work was seen to be the more valuable, the more it had pre-existing, «accepted» stuff copied into it – an instance (a primitive one, if you like) of the «new» never emerging from a void. Even today, no one can ever write a line without it's being, at the same time, a commentary to much that was written before – and as such, effectively, borrowing from it. The «unique» work in the sense implied in the ideology of copyright in its pure form never did and, even more certainly, never will exist. According to my ideology, the interests of the writer, as well as those of literature in general, demand the works to be read as widely as possible, and here, the free availability of everything ever written to each and everyone is unquestionably the best conceivable solution (the public library representing this ideal in rudimentary form, the Net again creating conditions for its genuine and universal application).

The unlimited availability of everything written will in turn also mean its – basically – unrestricted reuse: again, it is in the interests of the literature (and of the writer) that anything once written can come to form an incitement for new writing – whether as a model or as a source for more or less extensive borrowing, or as modified, distorted, disfigured, mutilated, etc... In my ideal literature, there would be nothing in principle to prevent writer B to republish a work by writer A in his or her own name; the acceptability of such a gesture would, in my eyes, depend on whether it could be seen as artistically justified, and on whether there would be a financial interest on the part of the writer B involved. Should this sound shocking to you, let me remind of the centrality of collage and other forms of reuse in the birth and development of all Modernist writing – and I'm not thinking of Marcel Duchamp with his ready mades only (as central as these may to be to our theme), but of the so called High Modernist tradition of poetry as well. Borrowing, in the sense of re-writing of the whole preceding tradition, was absolutely crucial for Pound and Eliot – as it was for Haavikko in our tradition, in a much larger extent than is generally realized.

I would rather put the question the other way round: why is it that the idea of the Author's «right» to his work seems so natural and central to «us» – and yes, it is more central to «us» now than, say, a hundred years ago: in his
interesting book, the American scholar Paul Saint-Amour has convincingly demonstrated that a work like Ulysses by Joyce would be impossible to publish under the present Anglo-American copyright regime. My answer, as I guess all of ours' answers, will have to do with the economy of the book. The notion of a right to copy was not born in the sphere of literature, but in the sphere of its distribution. Ultimately, we are dealing with the obvious fact that producing a book will cost money - demand an investment. Here, the Finnish language in turn is more accurate than many others – we don't speak of those who bring books to the market as «publishers» but, more to the point, as «financiers» («kustantaja»). An exclusive right to make copies of a given work – and with that, a minimal certainty of possibility to offer it for sale – continues to be a natural precondition for a «decision to publish». All this is quite clear to me, and I don't have any fundamental objections to the idea of copyright in this restricted sense.


Except that the logic just described has, for some time now, ceased to condition the distribution of literature in an absolute kind of way. I want to be rather literal here. The idea of «copyright» has come to be problematic because the technical conditions of copying itself have changed. What used to require (and, according to a law of continuity, still does in large parts of literature) remarkable technical and financial means, can now be realized with two consecutive combined key-strokes: Ctrl+C, then Ctrl+V. We thus have two fundamentally different economies of literature.

Elsewhere, I have called this combination of key-strokes «the formula of subversion». Actually, I don't expect anything that dramatic to happen – rather, I think we have just entered a period of co-existence of two different economies of distribution that will most probably last at least for decades, and should the implied contradiction be solved one day, this need not necessarily come through a frontal conflict between the two economies.

What I, however, have come to be more and more convinced of – and what, in the end, may be crucial for this discussion inaugurated by the Literary Council of Finland, a public body – is that we indeed are dealing with two different economies, and thus also with two different future perspectives for literature. Here I need to adjust my previous rhetoric a bit. I claimed the notion of copyright not to be «intrinsic» for literature. But of course there is no such thing as the development of literature «as such»: as the primitive conditions of copying determined the ideal of medieval literature, so the technology of the printing press has been crucial in determining what we see as literature today. Copyright with its increasingly austere ban on borrowing and re-presenting that the book industry is forced to stick to, tends in my view both to trivialize the writing produced under it, and to endanger the latter's ties to the preceding tradition (this is how I would characterize most of the «attention-catchers» of the recent «seasons» of Finnish literature, the award-winning ones included). The writing under the «alternative economy» envisaged here, again, will move toward forms that may seem radical (copying made easy amounting to an entirely new concept of textuality); still, one can see in it a chance for a new kind of continuity as well. It is no accident that the ideas of the literary Modernism of a hundred years back seem to re-actualize today in the most experimental (and most often Net-based) new poetry.

I would not deny the possibility of remarkable and creative works still emerging under the «book economy» as well; neither do I demand others to subscribe to my notions of the Aesthetics, or even desirability, of the «alternative economy». The only thing that I want to notice, and be noticed, here and now, is its existence. This would also be my response to those who, even now, evidently ask how I can think it possible for that other economy to survive, when it cannot even guarantee writers' rights to their work, and thus their livelihood – that it cannot, and yet it has emerged, and proved dynamic. This, ultimately, will be my message to this seminar – not least because it already requires us to reconsider our views both on «literature» as institution, and on «writer» as occupation and role.

For isn't our entire public funding for literature based precisely on the assumption of the non-existence and impossibility of that alternative economy? The whole system of evaluation and resource allocation indispensable for this funding relies on the notion of a «union» between literature and «publishing houses» – one that I do not believe in any more (and I could cite numerous examples that, for me, make questionable the old idea of these houses as the backbone of culture even in its most traditional sense). The re-structuring of these mechanisms that in my view will become necessary in coming years, or decades, will affect a lot more than just individual decisions on what to support (or whether to support «small circulation» or «popular» literature). Where the discussion today tends to concentrate on the amount – or inadequacy – of public resources for individual writers, my sense is that in future the emphasis needs to shift to something much more communal - the current «state-financed writer» may be exposed as a dinosaur sooner than we think. If the changes awaiting us are anything of these dimensions, better to start discussing them sooner than later.