Was “Parma Endorion” stolen? Is distributing e-books “theft?”

01.06.09 | Kunochan | Speak, friend & comment!

I was confused by this post by Michael Martinez on the Tolkien Studies Blog. He’s mad that a copy of his e-book, Parma Endorion, escaped into the Internet badlands as a non-protected PDF file, and is being shared without his explicit permission.

Some thoughts:

I have only briefly perused Martinez’ book. It purports to be “Essays on Middle Earth,” but appears to be “encyclopedic” information for the most part, a la Robert Foster. There’s nothing wrong with that. But actual critical writings, containing original scholarship, don’t seem to start until at least half way through. And even these contain a lot of very long quotes from Shippey. Again, nothing wrong with that.

But I wonder if the Tolkien Estate would agree. JK Rowling just sued someone’s ass off for planning to publish a Harry Potter encyclopedia; a move I thought was rather dickish on the part of the usually reliable Rowling. The Tolkien Estate has never, to my knowledge, gone after anyone like The Encyclopedia of Arda (which sells a CD-ROM edition) or Wikipedia.

Nor should they. There’s a very telling quote in Letters, in which Tolkien, always baffled that anyone would study or even enjoy his works, is nevertheless hopeful that people will continue to expand on his work after his death. Specifically — Letters, p. 145:

I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. [However, Tolkien goes on to say what he thinks of the idea anyone will actually do this:] Absurd.

And exegesis (if I may borrow a word from theology) of the Legendarium only helps sell Tolkien’s books, in the end. Combating these “derivative” works would be a huge mistake on the part of the copyright holders.

Nevertheless, Martinez must understand that his book is almost wholly derivative of the works of other people. As I keep saying, no shame in that. But then his outrage (the appropriate word, I think, if you read the original post) seems absurd.

Outrage would seem strange to me, even if the work in question were wholly original. Have Martinez and Rowling been asleep the past ten years? Copyright is being transformed — not in the courts, which are reactionary and in thrall to entrenched corporate interests — but on the Internet. And not by thieves or “pirates,” who steal copyrighted works and distribute them for monetary gain. Nor by the target of Martinez’ outrage, the ISP of the web site hosting the file of his book. The idea that this ISP somehow gains, intentionally, monetarily, from this “piracy” is laughable. (And unlike most authorities, I do not believe that an ISP is responsible for the content on its servers, any more than the phone company is responsible for the content of a phone call.)

The information in Martinez’ book was “freed” from whatever odious DRM code “protected” it, and placed on a server, by an anonymous individual, as a public service. Martinez should be glad that someone wants to share his book — even if the site sharing the book is, as Martinez characterizes it, a “classic Made-For-Adsense ‘scraper’ site.”

There is a new idea — very new, I assure you, not a traditional part of copyright — a belief that the author or creator of a work should have absolute control over how that work is consumed, sold, stored, borrowed, criticized or or copied, in all circumstances, at least for 75 years after their death if not for all time. This idea would have destroyed the old idea of copyright — you can’t sell a book you purchased, or lend it, or discuss it in a group, or donate it to a library. (I’m not exaggerating — in going after used video game sellers and Google Book Search, copyright holders are indeed being this absurdly strident and controlling.)

And need I point out that under this theory of copyright, Martinez’ book would not exist at all, without the explicit permission of The Tolkien Estate?

This new idea is a reaction to the fact that all copyrighted digital works are subject to unlimited copying — whether the author wants it or not, whether the law or governments allow it or not. This course was set the day academics started making their files available on gopherspace, the day music publishers switched to CDs, the day the French really invented the Internet.

Suing ISPs, prosecuting file sharers, and destroying Net Neutrality will not place control over the dissemination and alteration of intellectual property back in the hands of creators or corporate owners. It just won’t. It can’t. The only way back would be to destroy every computer and every phone and cable line.

It’s a new world. What will the new business model for content creators be? No one knows for sure. Maybe there won’t be one — that’s my hope. In the meantime, we can attempt to protect our work with copyleft solutions like Creative Commons, and try to be part of the future instead of the past. And in the meantime, you can still get your book published by an old media dead tree publishing house and sell it in brick & mortar stores. Even if it’s already available for free online.

The funny thing is, Martinez already makes Parma Endorion available online. For free. On a site that distributes tons of “unauthorized” fan fic.

So why is he upset again?

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