History and cultural heritage as a source of inspiration is truly amazing in many ways. The fastness of it, the depth and richness. The endless possibilities in analyzing histories, comparing the past and the present or juxtaposing those. You can interpret it endlessly and use it as a foundation for study, fiction, research and art. This makes it very great, but not unique in the complete body of work we call culture. What makes it so special is that, as property in the public domain, no part of history can be owned by a single person or cooperation.
It may seem really straightforward to you that when I take an era in history, say the French revolution and write a narrative history of this era, that I do not automatically own the rights to that historical event. I have copyright of my work, but the foundation on which this work has been build does not default into my care completely. I can’t bar people from entertaining the same narrative or a completely new interpretation of the French revolution just because I wrote something about it in a particular context.
Now where am I going with this?
My new novel
The odd thing is however, that when I take this history and modify it a bit here and there, something strange happens. Lets say I take France into Photoshop to flip and distort it a little. I enlarge Corsica and plant that near the right of the main land mass. Then I finish by taking Germany and putting it on it’s side to the left of France. Here it is!
Subsequently I alter little things. I ignore most places, names and other identifiable attributes and keep only those that I wish to incorporate into my “universe”.
France isn’t called that, It’s Gaulisimo Superior and Germany is Hamburgia. France does not have a king but a supreme prefect and Hamburgia does not have a central government at all. No need to specify naturally!
Capitals : Eifeltown and Keizerplatz
Ruling Dynasties : The Snailsbread Dynasty and the tribes of the Sausagefingers.
Currency : The Pain and Das Kapital
The story will naturally be about these two landmasses having a century old rivalry and somewhere in the story, the ruling dynasty will be dethroned and put to death by some very but not quite completely dissimilar contraption that might resemble a guillotine.
There you have it. Outlined by me © and IP all in the bag. I wrote this fictional universe with endless possibilities and I “OWN” it now. If you wish to take MY IP and make a derivative which does not fall under fair use for profit, I could legally stop you from doing that. This universe is mine because I created it and you are not allowed to use it as a foundation for stories and art without my explicit permission.
Isn’t that weird? Not only are you barred from writing a new story about my main protagonist U’ly Krichtebacherlingenstoffen Von Urtekark (Who falls in love with a princes and then they have to flee because of the revolution.) You can’t even create your own isolated protagonist and story line in the most uninteresting and boring places in my universe (which is of course the west of Hamburgia where nothing happens every).
Did I mention in my universe dinosaurs exist and roam the seas? No, well, does not matter because dinosaurs or not, you can not make a dinosaur related story in my universe anyway!
A Clash with copyright
Most people will have realized that I took a page from the book of George RR Martin school of aimlessly writing into the night when setting this example and this is not coincidental. This is because it is quite clear that GRRM is borrowing heavily from English history for his backdrop and story line(s) but he also thinks that fan-fiction is a bad thing. The things he says about this illustrate why IP ownership is far to restrictive and why he is a massive hypocrite.
Regardless of my (low) opinion on the Game of Thrones series, it is fact that GRRM’s universe is build up the same way I build mine. You take some history, change a few things here and there and then you call it personal intellectual property. GoT basically is the War of the Roses with dragons set om a map that is the UK with Ireland stuck to the bottom of Brittany and Turkey off the east coast.
How can it be so that lazily plucking elements from history for a narrative grants you godlike ownership over a fictional world heavily indebted to history while the historian who does actual rigorous research and documents the history only gets to control the exact writings in his publications?
Adding insult to injury, GRRM has stated that he wants aspiring writers to create their
own worlds. This is inflammatory nonsense by a screenwriter who wrote for the TV show “beauty and the beast” (18th century literature, now in the public domain) in the 80’s and based his entire book series on an amalgamation of English medieval history and Tolkien. It is as clear as day that this hypocrite never created an original world of his own at all. He simply takes from publicly owned cultural heritage sources, changes it up and claims ownership. But demanding that others should actually create new worlds instead of using “his” is the ultimate insult.
It would not be all that bad except for that last part because, as I have mentioned before, culture, literature, art and science are NOT created in a vacuum. There is no such thing as an isolated original thought. All works are derivatives and and indebted to what came before. To deny this simple fact and claim that your world is indebted to nothing is cultural theft. To deny creative access to fans and give nothing back to the public domain you so happily took from is morally unsound.
To imagine that you own a limitless universe you copy/pasted from an atlas and a history book grants you the right to therefor stop a writer from writing about a tree and a cat in that universe in a place that you you did not even know(because this also was made up) is complete insanity. That isn’t intellectual property, it is stolen property. It goes against every process whereby culture is build. It is, in a very real way, evil.
Copyright was intended as a measure to ensure that authors could do their work without starving by granted a period in which they alone could exploit their work. Seems sane enough, right? Anything you can “copy”, right? The clue is in the name for Pete’s sake! This notion of a limitless universe as “intellectual” property is largely non copy-able. You can’t copy the fast number of potential expression that do not exist!
IP also is by necessity a derivative and therefor indebted to what went before. This debt is not large really. The only thing you have to to to pay the debt is to give something back to the pool of cultural expression from which you took so much. Failing to do so impoverishes the following generations because they will have, at best, the same foundation to build upon instead of a new foundation which you could have provided.
This selfish notion clearly stifles the growth of culture because there is no more incremental succession. Imagine how science or history would operate if we were told that you may do research, but you may only use the Principia Mathematica and the works of Tacitus. These disciplines would be eternally stuck in the past, without a chance in heel to progress and incrementally add to our body of knowledge and culture.
Just as with the historian, the novelist should regard copyright as a means to ensure that his work, being of suitable quality, will be able to reimburse the time and effort put into the work. You are compensated for your contribution to society which itself was kind enough to lend you it’s enormous cultural catalog for your inspiration after which you’ll happily see people expanding on your work.
That is the only way we can further science, art, history and literature.