Monday, April 09, 2007

Closing tabs

on some interesting Guardian stuff from this weekend: Ian Thomson on Primo Levi's good German; John Lanchester's fascinating rumination on intellectual property and the problem of copyright in a digital age. Here's a bit of Lanchester, very interesting stuff:

The words "intellectual property" have a fairly predictable effect. Use them in conversation, and nine out of 10 people immediately fall into a deep sleep, only to wake eight hours later demanding coffee and Weetabix. The 10th person, who is likely to have some engagement with the creative industries, will immediately launch into a long, articulate, autobiographical complaint.

The broad story of copyright is one of creative individuals feeling they are being stiffed, and that the public interest is losing out as a result. Everyone has a beef about it. This is mine. Between Christmas 1941 and the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945, my grandparents were in a Japanese internment camp in Stanley, at the far edge of Hong Kong island. Many internees died of malnutrition and illness, only three Red Cross parcels arrived during the entire war, and some of their closest friends were tortured and executed by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police and equivalent of the Gestapo.

Personal possessions were scarce. By the end of the war, my grandmother owned only two things: a one cent coin with the middle drilled out, which she wore as a wedding ring, since she had traded her ring away for food in early 1945; and a small pocket diary for 1942, which she must have bought before the fall of Hong Kong. She used that diary for the next three years, writing in pencil, and commenting almost exclusively on food - basically, every time they had something other than rice, she made a note of it.

At the end of the war, the internees were given a typed newsletter that filled them in on what had happened while they were in the camp. (Almost the first thing on it was a remark about the influence of women in all areas of civilian life during the war: "driving buses and working in factories".) At about the time she was given that newsletter, Lannie, my grandmother, must have found a typewriter, because along with the other scraps of paper from this period I found a poem that she, or someone else, had typed out. It was called "A Farewell to Stanley":

A farewell to Stanley - it's over
Of internees there's not a sign
They've left for Newhaven and Dover
For Hull and Newcastle on Tyne.

The poem must have meant a lot to Lannie, or she wouldn't have kept it for the rest of her life; it is, it seems to me, a rather good poem. But you won't find it in the American edition of my book Family Romance, because my American publisher was reluctant to let me quote it. The fact that I couldn't find anything about the poem's author made them too nervous. If I couldn't find him or her - didn't even know whether he or she existed and wasn't a pseudonym - then the poem was probably in copyright and as such couldn't be published.

There might have been a way around it, if I was prepared to indemnify the publisher from potential costs arising. That didn't seem fair to me. "I don't feel I can indemnify you for the legal risk, for obvious reasons to do with the relative balance of resources between us," I wrote to the corporate lawyer. "Pearson is a £6bn global corporation, I'm a writer with two small children and a mortgage ... One of the complaints of the people in the camp was that they were forgotten and silenced. It does seem sad that this person's voice won't be heard precisely because no one knows who he or she was."

No dice. The poem isn't included in the US edition of my book. It was cheeky of me even to ask, since, as my American editor told me, "copyright over here is like libel over there" - in other words, it is immune from common sense, with no room for flexibility or negotiation or the self-evidently right thing.

NB on a totally irrelevant note I have been eating a lot of Weetabix recently, it's kind of the perfect food if you like that sort of thing: as a child I used to eat it at my London grandmother's house for breakfast, I have fond memories of it but it's also still what I like. So it seems to me a good thing they're marketing it in the US now, only the advertising copy on the box is risibly inappropriate for an American audience! There are four pictures on the back of possible ways to serve it: "A delicious hot cereal for cold winter days. Just add warm milk" (well, just about feasible, I suppose, though I think American breakfast cereals skew hot OR cold, not AC/DC, so this is a bit off); "Enjoy with yogurt and fresh fruit" (hmm, milk and fruit would be the more familiar option); "Heat a biscuit in the toaster oven, then spread with butter and jam" (distinctly farfetched!); and finally the one that really gets me and sort of has me in stitches even now as I am looking it (since I actually went so far as to bring the box in and put it by the computer so I could type up the captions!), "Mix with warm milk for baby pabulum." Baby pabulum! A delightful formulation, in its way, but it is so much more English- or Canadian-English than U.S.-American, the whole thing is just bizarre...

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