Carl's Copyright Company

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November 25, 2010

In 9th grade I took an art class, mostly to fulfill my Arts requirement.  It turns out I could have waited until the 11th grade when I took Drama, which would have given me the same required credit.  I had to do all sorts of weird stuff in that class, like a pencil shade drawing of a running shoe and draw my hand without looking at the paper.  I also took home a pretty lousy painting of a red fox, but there was one project I particularly enjoyed.  We had to come up with a business concept and then draw the logo for that company.  Mine was Willy's Chili Dogs (I don't go by Willy anymore, FYI) and it had a cool exploding cartoon thermometer behind the name.  My friend Carl, who generally applied himself in that class even less than I did, called his business "Carl's Copyright Company" and the logo was just three concentric copyright symbols.  I thought it was mildly clever, but then the art teacher held it up as an example of how simplicity is often the easiest communicator.  This bothered me for a few reasons, first that it was clearly another example of him not wanting to do more work than he had to, and second that it sounded like a pretty lousy business idea.  How much money could there possibly be in copyrighting stuff?

It turns out that there is quite a lot of money to be made in the copyrighting business, partly because there is so much money to be lost by not copyrighting stuff.  Even with the plays I've written and things like that people encourage me to copyright it, just so that if anyone else ever does want to use it, they have to give me proper credit, financial or otherwise.  Before those ventures into creative writing, the little C surrounded by a circle was a kind of demonstration of professionalism, respectability and even success.  Now that I have a few documents sealed away in tamper proof Canada Post envelopes issued with a legally binding date stamp, I have a different outlook on the whole thing.  When I as an "artist" put  a copyright symbol on something, I'm not asking the world to recognize the professional quality of my work (they can if they want to), I'm simply stating that I have the right to copy it, and they don't.  I can only presume that other people issuing that same symbol feel the same way.

I saw the copyright symbol in a new and unexpected place recently.  Despite having over a dozen Biblical translations on my shelf, I like to read them online so that I can compare them quicker and copy and paste them into my sermon documents.  On the site I use I can choose from roughly that many English translations.  Like many people I grew up reading the NIV which had been last translated in 1984.  It was updated as Today's New International Version, so I guess for them, "today" is 2005.  A number of people were unhappy with that translation and it was re-released again in 2010 with a new name, "New International Version".  All three versions are available on this website, so to distinguish the three, they decided to use our friend, the copyright symbol.  Now, among the various other choices a visitor can read New International Version ©2010, Today’s New International Version ©2005, or New International Version ©1984.

Of course, technically this is a correct and legally necessary place for these symbols since the particular NIV wording was paid for and thus owned by Zondervan Publishing, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.  In another way too, I as a reader want to be sure that the translation I'm reading has been professionally compiled by a respectable organization, and the copyright symbol is a step towards me getting that assurance.

In my eyes though, the history of Bible translation is entirely different.  No document has been translated into as many languages as the Bible.  These Bibles are sometimes the first document to be recorded in certain languages and it is often one of the tools that allows a community to maintain their language and culture by having a permanent resource in that language.  Often the people translating the Bible are doing so as volunteer missions workers, never dreaming of receiving ongoing royalty payments for their work.  Biblical translation is motivated by the hope of universal access to scriptures.

I admit that I am likely a little bit over sensitive about the other implied meaning.  I understand that the professional translation work that has been done needs to be protected so that nobody alters or unduly profits from it and that means putting legal safeguards in place so that people like me also can't copy it.  Even my print Bibles have lengthy copyright information in their inside covers.  Maybe I just don't get the whole copyrighting idea.  I wonder if my old friend Carl could help me understand.

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