Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Forgiveness vs. Permission

There's a motto that says it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I had an experience with it associated with copyright, and I'm still ambivalent about whether I should have waited to ask forgiveness instead of asking permission.

In my next Jack Meter novel, entitled Meter Made (coming out next year), I wanted to use a quote from the beginning sentences of the program The Outer Limits. So, like a good little author respectful of copyright, I contacted MGM to ask them permission to use 10 words out of the intro.

They were very nice, but insisted to know how I was going to use the quote. I sent them an excerpt. When they found it acceptable, they said they'd be happy for me to use the quote, for a fee. A mere $750. In US dollars.

That's $75 a word, or close to $100CDN.

I had known, from their website, that there would be a fee but in my naivete I thought it would be nominal, just to discourage the frivolous. But this smacks of extortion, and I'm left to wonder how much of that fee would go back to the author of these words.

Some colleagues, when I related the incident, told me I should have used the quote without permission and waited for the lawsuit, implying that I'm such small potatoes they would have never known. (True, but depressing). And if they sued, that would be awesome free publicity.

Others said I should have paraphrased, or used the quote in quotation marks --anyone can quote someone else, right?

Neither of these alternatives work for me. If the roles were reversed, and MGM wanted to use my material (yeah, right), I'd certainly want them to contact my publisher so they could milk it to the last, not necessarily money-wise, but publicity-wise.

It's also, to me, a question of courtesy. I wouldn't use my neighbour's garden hose without asking them, even if I knew they wouldn't notice, so why would I do that with the written word? The Canadian thing again, I guess.

Did I pay? No. Did I use the quote. No. I simply removed it. But by that kind of rapacity, MGM, and others like them, encourage infrigement of copyright and plagiarism. If I'd used the quote, it certainly wouldn't have hurt them; but to my eyes I would have nicked my own probity by committing an act (albeit small) of copyright piracy.

For more on asking permission to use copyrighted work, read this article at Writing World.

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