Who owns art, anyway?

The internet is at once a scary and exhilarating place. I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to internet presence and privacy, especially with the recent uproar over SOPA and associated increased attention to censoring, freedom of speech and what constitutes piracy. And you know what I’ve decided?

It’s a fine line, my friends. A very, very fine line.

Story time: when I was in high school, I belonged to one of the first-wave internet message boards called Writers Of Today. It was probably the early-200’s equivalent to facebook: a group of internet-savvy teenage girls posted religiously on the message board section of a website that would be beta today (at best). The site had several pages, but I only remember regularly visiting two of them: the writing page and the message board. On the writing page, probably akin to what we would call a blog today, although none of knew the word back then, budding writers such as myself and my WOT (because acronyms are kewl) colleagues could post samples of poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction, etc. for each other to read and comment on. The comments usually consisted of variations on “omg! Ur so gud! I lv wut u wrote ab/ luv. Sooooo tru!” but it was validating in the way we, as creative, hormone-charged teenagers needed.

The message board was more informal: we would chat with each other about high school life, the drama of first kisses and early boyfriends, friends, and the emotional issues that are so prevalent to teens and so isolating because adults have largely forgotten they ever felt that way, too.

One day, I received an email from one of my WOT friends that she had seen a lyric on a musician friend’s website that looked oddly familiar, and, when she asked him where it came from, he sheepishly confessed he had just “borrowed” some poetry from the website. “It’s not like anyone owns it,” he had apparently argued. “There’s no copyright on it.”

In my internet innocence, I demurred. There was no explicit copyright listed, and since this was years and years before my first Media Law class, before I cared about intellectual property, creative commons or fair use agreements, I seethed privately and let it slide. The guy’s page folded shortly thereafter (he was never much of a musician to begin with, and evidently decided he wanted to go after more serious pursuits, like getting his license once he turned 16) and the issue died on the table.

But today? I’ve never caught anyone using my material since then, and like any good social media practitioner, I keep a pretty close eye on my google stats. I’ve used images licensed under creative commons in my blogs before, and whenever I post work of my own on flickr or other media-sharing sites, I take care to set the permissions at a level I’m comfortable with. Does that mean I think no one ever shares material without asking, or that there’s a tiny bit of risk involved whenever we post any of our intellectual property online? These days, I’m not nearly that naive.

That’s why I think the internet, with all its bells, whistles and dark caverns where hissing things hide,  needs to be approached like the endless rainforest it is. We can’t sit in our website palaces and assume we’re protected by the invisible forcefield of facebook privacy settings or carefully-monitored SEO. I don’t think SOPA is the answer, because I don’t support censorship. I do, however, think everyone with an online presence needs to be careful about putting their best face forward. It may end up plastered on the front page someday, and you’d want to be looking your best.


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