Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Hooray for Juli Zeh, Ilja Trojanow and Benjamin Stein!

There's been a great deal of hullaballoo in Germany recently about Urheberrecht. Which is like copyright only the rules are slightly different, I believe. First a musician-cum-writer gave an angry radio interview about people expecting something for nothing on the internet. There followed statements by groups such as scriptwriters, crime writers, and so on. Then several thousand writers signed an appeal against alleged calls to abolish Urheberrecht. I'd have linked to it except it keeps making my browser crash. That might (but probably doesn't) have something to do with the fact that anonymous activists got annoyed with them and published a list of their email addresses. Thus making the anonymous activists look terribly big and clever, but perhaps not helping the debate along hugely. A number of individual writers then presumably felt threatened by the nasty electronic media and wrote rather silly pieces about how the net is ruled by semi-illiterate idiots. Then came the counter-appeals, and so on and so forth.

I'd been holding out on the subject, to be frank, because it's a very complicated issue that I feel is something for people to work out who understand intellectual property law, i.e. lawyers. And although I was encouraged to sign the mass appeal I decided not to. I can understand why German writers are running scared, looking at the record industry's rapid decline transformation. I'm an old-fashioned girl but I know musicians and even record sellers who download tracks illegally. And then imagine you've just woken up to the existence of the e-book, like basically all of Germany, and think what a shock you'd get. Eavesdropping on countless Facebook conversations, I could see that even those writers who are actually on Facebook and thus, like, totally down with the kids, are worried about pirated electronic copies of their books.

The only point of my own I have to make, which has no doubt been made before but after a while I stopped following the debate, is that I know musicians now make up for some of the losses caused by illegal downloads through live appearances. And they're something that many writers shine at too, and which can already earn them a lot decent amount of money once they hit that point of people wanting to pay to see them. Especially in Germany, where they're paid as a matter of course. So calm down, will you?

Well they already have, but I still wanted to draw your attention to three writers who are saying things I think make sense. First of all came Benjamin Stein in his blog Turmsegler. He pointed out that criticism of the evil middle-men is exaggerated, because writers need someone to do their editing, printing, marketing, royalties accounting, and so on. And that customers don't necessarily want to get creative content for free, as the major success of iTunes proves - they want things to be reasonably priced and simple to get hold of. Yes, he says, reform Urheberrecht to reflect what the internet enables us to do now, but don't abolish it.

Then Juli Zeh was interviewed along with her publisher Klaus Schöffling (love german books German publisher of the year 2011!). That was in last week's issue of the weekly Die Zeit. And here, Zeh says that high pricing of e-books encourages illegal copying, while Schöffling says, well we're not a big enough company to start lowering the prices. A strange argument, considering he also says they only sold 270 electronic copies of a hardcover that broke the 20,000 margin. But neither of them are keen on punishing individuals for ripping off e-books.

And then Zeh - who's a lawyer, hooray! - and Ilja Trojanow had a terribly sensible piece in Sunday's FAZ. They point out that piracy is so far no real threat to German writers and they add some realistic calculations to the mix. They remind us that nobody's seriously suggested abolishing Urheberrecht anyway, no, not even the digital Blackbeards of the Pirate Party. And they suggest that the upshot of all this focus could be yet more surveillance on the internet.

Oddly enough, all three of these authors have made it into English. Benjamin Stein's novel The Canvas (trans. Brian Zumhagen) is coming out any day now from Open Letter Books - a tiny weeny publishing company that has done its bit on the innovative e-book pricing front, incidentally. Ilja Trojanow made it big, big, big with his Collector of Worlds (trans. Will Hobson), and Juli Zeh's latest English translation (by the wondrous Sally-Ann Spencer) is The Method - about a meddling state. My guess is that Stein's just incredibly internet-savvy - being one of the very, very few German writers who even blogs, and an IT bod aside from that (and apologies for these parentheses inside dashes, but I'd just like to emphasize my belief that a lot of German writers and indeed readers are still very shy of the internet in general, which is something I'll rant about on another occasion) - and Trojanow and Zeh have seen the future in the UK and US book industry and aren't afraid of it.

Certainly the whole debate hasn't shown many people in a good light. Now the political parties are gradually launching new position papers on intellectual property rights and the internet, safe in the knowledge that thousands of voters really are interested. Of course that's all much less sexy than signing an appeal - on a website to boot.

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