A couple of times a year I google my own name, just to see what comes up. Part of the point of blogging and so on is my author profile, what people will see when they look for me. Most of it is expected; links to stories or reviews of stories, links to my blog or to places where I’ve commented. This last time, however, I found a link to a site for a school, and indications that one of my stories had been used in an exam. It was a story that had been published only online, and not in a print anthology.
I was annoyed, in part because schools in Canada are arguing for the right to photocopy authors’ work for the classroom rather than buy it. Most fiction writers don’t make a lot of money anyway, and the attitude that anything “found” on the internet is fair game is simply salt in the wound.
I looked up the school’s website and wrote the principal a note protesting the use of my work without permission, acknowledgement or payment. And there, I thought, the matter would end. I’ve had several run-ins with people about the theft of my images or words, and the usual result is either “What are you going to do about it, eh?” or resounding silence.
To my surprise, I received a prompt apology from the principal. He said he’d spoken to the staff member responsible about the need to get permission to use an author’s work. Then he asked me to say what I thought fair recompense would be for their use of my story.
The courtesy of this reply completely disarmed me. I didn’t really want to say, “Send me X dollars”. I also didn’t want to say, “Oh, that’s all right, then,” because obviously it wasn’t or I wouldn’t have written in the first place. The principle of respecting copyright still had to be upheld.
It took me a little thought to come up with a solution; that the school make a donation – I left the amount up to the principal – to a local charity. I was happy about this because it meant the work was paid for, and also allowed me to indulge the impulse to say “it’s all right” that the principal’s courtesy had sparked in me.
In the end, everybody won. I made my point about copyright, and had a chance to be generous. The local charity received a donation. The principal told me that this incident had given him the opportunity to raise and discuss the issue of copyright with his staff. It worked out much better than I had hoped, with goodwill all around.
We do need to uphold our copyright and moral rights to our work. It’s about the money, yes, the same way it’s about the money if a waitress or teacher or clerk is shorted on a paycheque for work done. But it’s also about the principle, which can be harder to demonstrate. I’m grateful that in this instance I was dealing with someone whose courtesy and sense of honour made it possible for me to make it about the principle.