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“It would be interesting to discover how far a seriously critical view of the benefits to society of the law of copyright…would have a chance of being publicly stated in a society in which the channels of expression are so largely controlled by people who have a vested interest in the existing situation.”

— Friedrich Hayek, The Intellectuals and Socialism

The other day, I thought, “Did I use the expression, ‘the white-knight of the far-right; the slick-trick with the donkey-dick’ in an article?”. I can’t remember, and I can’t be bothered to go back and look. The expression comes from a James Ellroy speech I watched once or twice—perhaps it’s in his books, I don’t know. I haven’t read any of his books.

I don’t believe in copyright—lots of people don’t believe in copyright (like Hayek above—who is, at least, sceptical). From a personal viewpoint, I don’t really care about my words—if you want to reuse an expression or idea of mine, or even recopy an entire paragraph, I don’t care. I don’t know if anything I write or say is really mine anyway—it just comes from “somewhere”.

I think a lot of this issue is vanity—people are just vain. I mean, it’s considered a cliche to start a story “it was a dark and stormy night”—because that’s an opening from Bulwer-Lytton’s novels (which nobody reads anymore, perhaps). But if I started a story “it was a dark and stormy night” is that somehow “wrong” or “theft”? Is it okay now that Bulwer-Lytton is dead? Or is it okay when the copyright expires? What if it was a “dark and stormy night”?

Should I say “It was a stormy and dark night” instead? Well, yes, because people find “it was a dark and stormy night” hackneyed, but from an ethical perspective, does it make any difference?

In the end, if an expression is any good it becomes common usage. People use phrases from Shakespeare all the time, dozens of them, because these have entered the language—people even write these expressions down. Is that “plagiarising” Shakespeare?

Did Shakespeare really write all the plays attributed to him, anyway? I don’t think so, because I’ve read them all out loud to myself and, while they mostly all sound the same, one or two are so different I don’t think they’re by the same man.

When you listen to a comedian most of his material is written by someone else, that’s part of the game—and the writers themselves wait a while to reuse material or a joke. That’s how the game is played.

Dominic Cummings, a government adviser, once said “the night time is the right time to fight crime”—which is right. It’s also a direct quote from a children’s cartoon (unattributed). I think it’s a true statement however way you cut it, and I don’t feel that somehow Cummings wronged the writers of that show by using the expression (though perhaps, technically, he owes them £0.002 in royalties).

Or is it okay to say it but not to write it down, because to write is magical? That’s why the Romans said verba volant, scripta manent (words fly, letters stick)—“Ah, it’s in writing you see, so now it’s indelible—banged to rights, in his own words,” or so your psyche thinks.

People really are entranced by words—they see something in writing and they think it’s more real, somehow (the written confession—but, then again, if you confess verbally it’s okay to retract it because it’s not “on record”).

Most people love to play detective, moralist, and judge—so they love to have a piece of paper they can wave at people, like a barrister (because they’re actually possessed by language, by the script—the written word). “Here, here—in his own hand!”.

The Russian show trials utilised that to an absurd degree—“Here, here, in his own hand, a confession that he is an anti-Soviet wrecker” (you know we deprived him of sleep for a week, beat him up, raped his wife in front of him—but here, here a written confession…).

You are bewitched and don’t even know it. Language is a virus from outer space. You are infected. You crawl over each other with your writs, your legislation, your articles, your advertisements, your confessions, your Bibles, your Korans—you are insane, mad. You believe it all—every image, every word, every picture.

You wave the paper like the prosecutor triumphant—just like you saw in all those legal dramas you watched growing up (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…”—you imagine yourself as prosecutor, of course; never defendant).

If I overhear a florid expression in a cafe and pick it up as my own is that “plagiarism”? Who owns the language, anyway?

It’s like the cut-ups by Burroughs—he cut up newspapers and glued the words back together to create new stories, and these stories predicted and/or created the future. So did he plagiarise those articles? Or did he take random expressions to create something new? Who are “you” anyway, this ego that stitches together words you read or hear via mass media?

When you mix your labour with something, you own it. So if I mix my labour with a novel, if I buy it and read it, why can’t I reuse it? I often quote poems from memory, but it’s never completely accurate, so I’ve absorbed and altered the poem so it’s mine—even if it’s 95.7% the same. I own it now.

The image above is from an atheist messageboard and I just thought, “It proves everything—a magical storybook by anonymous authors sounds wonderful.” Who is this “John”, anyway? It’s “definitely him”—apart from certain interpolations, when the scribes struck out that bit or added this bit in. Muhammad didn’t write anything down, it was all copied down from memory—so who does the Koran belong to? (To the anonymous authors who composed this magical storybook).


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