Friday, 19 November 2010

I have a story I want to tell you about

copyright. It is not a pretty story.
First you need to read this article in Wikipedia. It will give you part of the background.
Yes, it was a good idea that went badly wrong. What the Wikipedia article does not tell you about is the litigation that was involved and a situation that has never been resolved.
Let us first be clear about something. You cannot copyright a language you intend for use in the public domain. Bliss misunderstood this and others, perhaps first misunderstanding but later deliberately, took advantage of it. They also took advantage of other people's lack of knowledge about copyright.
Bliss was passionate about his cause but rigid about the way in which his ideas had to be implemented. His inflexibility was to cause many difficulties. He was a difficult, even impossible, man to work with. When he died we were both exhausted. I was trying to keep his work intact as well as flexible and also available to as many people as possible. He had reached a point where he trusted nobody and wanted nobody to use it. He gave me the "sole right" to use his work. He never revoked that right. Whether he had forgotten I had it (unlikely) or decided to trust me I do not know. I retain that right to this day. That matter has been decided by law.
His legal problems began when he also gave some Canadians a “licence” to use the system and then tried to revoke it. This is what led to the start of much litigation.
What he thought he was actually giving away was, and still is, uncertain. What was clear was that he believed he was not giving away a right to substantially change his work or make a profit from it. He was most certainly not passing on the copyright of his written work to anyone else. (It is now secured in the State Library of New South Wales and I am happy for it to remain there.)
On obtaining the “licence” to use his symbols the Canadians believed they had a right to change his symbol system to suit their own purposes, that they had the right to teach others about it and that they had the right to charge for doing these things. They also produced, for sale, teaching materials for training people to use the symbols with the disabled children who were the first to use them.
The Canadians also claimed the licence gave them the copyright. They also believed that "copyright" had passed to them because of the "licence". What they did not understand, or chose not to understand, was they did not hold the copyright to what Bliss had written about his symbols and that it is impossible to copyright and restrict the use of something that is clearly intended for use in the public domain and for public benefit.

I was soon advised that I was “in breach of the copyright” by the Canadians. They also advised Bliss himself that I was in breach of copyright. If I wanted to use his work I would have to go to Canada and be trained by them - and then work within the restrictions they imposed.
At that time I did not have the degree in law that I now have. I knew nothing about copyright except that it existed and had to be respected. I was also doing some post-graduate research and they advised the university that I should not be permitted to continue as it was a breach of copyright. My supervisor was equally ignorant of copyright law but we were, after a tense period, advised by the university's legal experts that I was not in breach of anything.
Bliss also maintained that I was not in breach of any copyright agreement and that he had not given any such thing away. He endeavoured to revoke the “licence” he had given the Canadians.
Had I been using the Canadian teaching materials, especially for my own benefit, I might have agreed I was in breach of copyright but I was not. I had the permission of Bliss himself to use his work and he had not passed the copyright in his work to anyone else, nor was he likely to do so.
Provided that I developed my own materials I was not, under the terms of my agreement with Bliss, in breach of any copyright conditions. The Canadians did not see it that way - although they gave in over the research.
Litigation began between Bliss and the Canadians. It was long and drawn out. It also involved bitter words and claims of libel. Worst of all it almost prevented and certainly delayed the implementation of the symbol system in places where it was desperately needed, among people with disabilities in developing countries where expensive synthetic speech devices (artificial voices) are not available. Threats were made of litigation over "illegal use" of the symbol system and they were, all too often, sufficient to prevent use of it.
The issues were still not resolved when Bliss died in 1985. People still do not work together as they should.
The Canadians continue to use his work and claim certain rights. They have not been able to prevent others from using the symbol system but still charge heavily for materials and courses.
I also continue to use the same system. Even without the "sole right" assigned to me by Bliss the symbol system itself is not subject to copyright. I am entitled to use it. I do not charge. It is the reason I am poor but my conscience is clear.
Now there is a moral to all of this and a point to the story. None of this would have happened if people had understood what copyright is, who owns it and when and how it can be assigned to other people. Copyright is both simple - and complex. Learn about it.


Anonymous said...

Agreed Cat! But, you were much too nice and are still much too nice. I know we will argue for ever and a day about this but there is nothing to stop you making money out of what you do - and old Charles never expected you to live off fresh air. Bob C-S

Rachel Fenton said...

I think people are intimidated by copyright law, Cat.

catdownunder said...

No Bob - but I am not going to charge. I want to be able to sleep at night.
Rachel you may be right - but it should not be so!