People with a taste for the finer details of copyright law pay attention to the language in notices of claimed copyright, the rhetoric of claims to enforce software licenses, and related things.

Book publishers, for example, routinely insert copyright notices that forbid any and all reproduction of any and all material, sometimes explicitly allowing for selections used in a review, but sometimes not. More than a decade ago, Alchemy Mindworks was celebrated (that link goes to an article by Lydia Pallas Loren) for threatening to unleash “a leather-winged demon of the night” on unauthorized users of its software.  (I just checked.  That demonic language is still there!) Creative Commons notices, of course, turn this idea on its head. In the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, perhaps (and with apologies to Rebecca Tushnet), a CC work says: Copy me, please (with conditions)!

The interesting stuff, to me, lies in the rhetorical space between “copy and you’re a thief” notices and “copy and you’re a hero” notices. This post is prompted by one of these, from William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral (Penguin 2014):

“Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.”

There are all sorts of rhetorical moves there, technical problems, and legal ambiguities. Have some fun, for example, by substituting the phrase “the public domain” for “copyright” every time it appears in that paragraph. Copy a bit of the text, as I just did, and persuade yourself that it constitutes fair use, as I just did.

“Penguin supports copyright.” I never imagined that it does not, but copyright ordinarily isn’t something that one supports, just as ordinarily, copyright isn’t something that one believes in – or does not.  Copyright is a fact of the world.  “Do you believe in infant baptism?,” Mark Twain supposedly was asked. And he is supposed to have replied, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it done!”