Last weekend, I watched a segment of Book TV, where author Scott Turow and Judge Richard Posner discussed books, ebooks, copyright, and publishing. The show was interesting, but it was also frustrating, because the speakers often talked past each other, without responding directly to points raised. Plus, Judge Posner seems to be unaware of the fact that some writers write fiction, as opposed to academic texts.
One of Judge Posner’s major points was that most writers do not rely on royalties to earn their money. According to the judge, many modern writers are supported by the patronage system, and traditional copyright should not be applied to them.
Patronage? Like the King of France paying a poet to write a paean? Like the Pope paying a biographer to record his life?
Not exactly. According to Judge Posner, modern “patrons” are universities, paying professors to write. Once I understood his definition, I nodded and tossed in “work-for-hire” arrangements into the patronage pot — an author is hired to write a specific work for a specific fee, forfeiting all rights to that work in the future.
But then I realized that there’s another form of patronage in modern writing: Kickstarter. We’ve all followed this new system of funding; some of our Magical Words colleagues have been extraordinarily successful using Kickstarter. (Yeah, Catie and Faith – I’m looking at you! )
Kickstarter gives patrons a chance to pay an author to write a specific work for a specific fee.
But what are the implications for this “new” system of support? What happens if an author fails to deliver in a timely fashion? Who defines “timely”? What happens if an author delivers a poorly written work, or one that strays substantially from the work originally described? What if the Kickstarter patrons are disappointed in the work they’ve underwritten?
Traditionally, authors and artists who were beholden to patrons knew that they had to “suck it up” to a certain extent. Michelangelo was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel when he would have much preferred to carve statues — all because Pope Julius II was paying the bills.
Should modern writers yield to the tastes of their patrons? Should we shape our stories to suit the whim of the majority? What if a large group of Kickstarter patrons wants one thing, and another large group wants the opposite?
I can answer many of the above questions by putting on my lawyer hat. I can go on and on about contracts, about offer, acceptance, and consideration. I can answer the questions as moral queries — the author owes her patrons certain things, but not all artistic control. I can answer the questions as artistic quandaries — sometimes the words just won’t come in a specific form, no matter what the obligation.
At heart, Kickstarter raises the question of who “owns” an artistic endeavor. So? Does Kickstarter change the rules? What rights *should* patrons have vis-a-vis their supported authors? And what rights do artists retain?
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