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Digital Copyright Law: What Authors Want….

With the second movie in the Twilight series (New Moon) imminently about to appear on the big screen, I found myself getting interested in this pop culture phenomenon, particularly as I strolled around a bookstore this afternoon and found just about every magazine cover devoted to the exploits of the teenage vampires and werewolves in the small town of Forks.

One part of the Twilight story, or at least the story of its author Stephenie Meyer, provides an interesting commentary on copyright law in the digital age.  The original Twilight novel is told from the perspective of its young heroine, Bella Swan, as are the next three novels in the series.  Bella famously falls for a young vampire called Edward and their forbidden and dangerous love is the focus of the narrative.  However, at some point during the writing process, the author became interested in how the story might look if she told it from Edward’s point of view.  She thus started a project entitled Midnight Sun – a retelling of the first book from the vampire’s perspective.

As she was working on Midnight Sun, production was on full swing on the first of the movies.  She released some draft chapters of the book to members of the production team (and possibly other people as well) to assist with character development on the Twilight movie.  Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with any work now made available in a digital format, the uncompleted draft of Midnight Sun was eventually released virally over the Internet.

Ms Meyer’s reaction to the unauthorized release and the storm of online commentary that followed is very instructive for those interested in finding out what many authors really want from digital copyright law.  And, perhaps surprisingly for some, it isn’t all about the money.  Ms Meyer’s response to the unauthorized release is described on her website.  And out of deference to her concerns about loss of control of her own material online, I won’t cut and paste slabs of her comments here.

What is interesting about her reaction, though, is she seems more concerned about loss of control of the fruits of her artistic labors, and feels that the unauthorized posting was an intrusion into her creative process that has so significantly interfered with her process that she may now be unable to finish the book.  While she would undoubtedly have made lots of money out of completing and publishing the book, this is likely a secondary concern given how financially successful she has been with the first four books, a new book series she has started, and the films of the books.  So are we seeing a significant divide here in practice between a successful author’s interests and potentially the commercial interests of her publishers?  While publishers would presumably be more concerned with money, the author here is more concerned with artistic integrity.  Does this suggest we need to more closely revisit the question of moral rights in the United States?  Might we have lost track of what authors are really concerned about?

It’s also interesting that this is effectively a case of a derivative work created by the author herself.  What would happen if fans disappointed at Ms Meyer’s decision to put the book on hold decide to create their own derivative works, telling the story from Edward’s (and perhaps other character’s) perspectives?  How would this fare under copyright law?  (And think of fair use factor 4 – would the fans be infringing into a potential market of the author if, say, she decided that she would NEVER complete the works, and if the fans did not themselves make any profits from making up the derivative storylines.)