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Cultural thieves

Norway lacks a literature policy for digital texts that can protect the authors' working conditions.


Required by: Hans Marius Graasvold Legal Advisor in NFF, hmg@advokatredet.no

and Kjell Lars Berge, chair of the Norwegian non-fiction author and translator association (NFF)

[chronicle] The point at all that questions about the value of copyright are at all due to dramatic changes in the technological framework conditions for the production and publishing of text, images and music.

The development has led several debaters in Norwegian society to believe that statements on the Internet cannot be covered by traditional copyright legislation. Some claim that copyright contributes to fencing the knowledge community (Tage Wester and Sebastian Gjerding, Ny Tid 12 January 2007). Such views have not only been asserted by individuals on the fringes of the Norwegian public, but also by some political youth organizations and leading parties in the Storting.

Goodbye to copyright? Led by Trond Giske, a majority in the Storting argued during the reading of the Intellectual Property Act in the spring of 2005 that authors who had chosen to publish their texts on the Internet had to accept that the texts were made for free use in the public sector. As Minister of Culture, Giske is now advocating a completely different view. Central user groups that the municipal central association now accepts that it will be paid for most of the internet printouts that employees in the municipalities use. But we still hear that politicians claim opinions that in practice mean a farewell to copyright.

The Liberal Party's national meeting recently decided that the party wants to decriminalize file sharing. The traditional cultural party thus expresses a view that it should be allowed to buy and sell stolen goods – on the condition that the stolen goods are intellectual property. And what is the rationale? The Liberal Party does not think that literature, music and films are made available quickly and cheaply enough. Therefore, the authors must be placed under administration and deprived of the right to publish their works themselves.

In our spring, Minister of Education Øystein Djupedal donated NOK 15 million to the county municipal joint project National Digital Learning Arena (NDLA). NDLA will create and disseminate free teaching materials for higher education. The teaching materials will be developed by a centralized, small editorial staff based on individual texts purchased from authors, publishers and others who must waive any right to control further dissemination and development of their intellectual works. The county authorities will of course expect to have access to free educational materials from NDLA, to the displacement of educational materials from the established teaching material publishers. This is how a teaching monopoly financed by the taxpayers arises.

Digital technology. We do not expect school students to conduct thorough academic research into the choice of free or expensive educational materials, or that the ordinary file-sharing reflects on the cultural-political implications of each file he or she sends to his "friends" online. Most people, to some extent, have reason to be dissatisfied with a cultural industry that has not yet adapted their business models to digital technology. But from our top elected officials, we should demand qualified reflections on the consequences of undermining the framework conditions for professional development of culture and knowledge. From the politicians, we should demand a cultural and knowledge policy for texts created and disseminated on the Internet.

What makes copyright so important and worthy of protection? The Internet and other online communication is one of the most important arenas for contacting people in between. It is on the Internet that we will visit public institutions for questions and assistance on rights and financial support. It is on the internet that we will act, acquire knowledge and let us entertain, and it is on the internet we will discuss and assert opinions. But the Internet is also a place where people can meet in private, whether through blogs where we post uncensored posts about our prejudices about God and everyone, or through exhibitionist self-promotion on YouTube.com or Deiligst.no.

Quality assurance. For an author – and especially a non-fiction author – the internet will be the most important arena for getting to know and read – and for being sold. If an author is to be read in tomorrow's society, he or she must be found online in a form that is easily accessible and appealing. However, writers must have something left for the work they do. It must be possible to make a living from internet-based writing if the internet is to become a place where readers can acquire good, diverse and accountable knowledge. Cultural, knowledge and educational policy considerations are perhaps the most obvious reasons for preserving copyright for Internet texts as well. In this way, it is also facilitated for quality assurance both ethically and professionally. The person who writes on the internet can be held responsible for what he writes. As in the traditional paper-based world of books, magazines and newspapers, schemes will develop that enable us to trust the speaker. These days, the teaching community, both primary and secondary school, colleges and universities, is being digitized. Schools and universities are concerned that the knowledge they create should be disseminated in a quality-assured manner. Copyright is a necessary tool to ensure a qualified and broad supply of cultural and knowledge-bearing content.

For the Norwegian society, this quality assurance is even more demanding because the utterances are written in a language very few mastered. There can be no doubt that the Internet stimulates the development of English as the world's most important language. It is even more important for Norwegians to develop Norwegian language on the Internet. The analogy with English-language writers who earn large sums of giving their texts online is not transferable in the Norwegian area, where the market depletes so infinitely faster than in most other language areas.

The NFF has long called for a clear and long-term literature policy from politicians. Norwegian literary policy should also include digital texts. It should be reflected in the further development and enforcement of the authors' copyrights. As the country's largest writing organization, NFF has a great responsibility to ensure that the authors exercise their rights in a way that benefits both themselves and the readers. We acknowledge that copyright is not always best exercised by securing the highest possible revenue. Those of our members who want to offer their texts for free, or allow others to develop the texts freely and without the author's supervision, should be able to do so. But it must be an indispensable starting point that it is up to the author, no one else, to decide if, when and how a work of art should be disseminated. ■

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