I am thrilled to announce that my essay “Body and Soul: Copyright Law and Enforcement in the Age of the Electronic Book” has just won the 2012 Calibre Prize for a long-form essay on any non-fiction topic. The prize is administered by Australian Book Review and supported by the Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency Limited.
I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve won anything since my epic undergraduate poem “The 1500 Words of Loretta DeFrupp” took out the Dr Seuss Tribute Competition organised by the Adelaide University Literary Society’s Timely Literary Suppository. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to be nominated, shortlisted and highly commended, I’ve been a finalist and a runner-up, but never outright won anything. I was overjoyed to hear that I’d been longlisted and then shortlisted for the Calibre prize, along with four intriguing essays by accomplished writers: Claire Corbett’s “The Last Space Waltz?: Reflections on 2001: A Space Odyssey and NASA—On Being Earthbound at the End of the Age of Atlantis”, Enid Ratnam-Keese’s “Mapping the Edges of the Night”, Bronwyn Lay’s “Imaginary Exile” and Colin Nettelbeck’s “Now They’ve Gone”. I had most of a blog post written in my head about how winning isn’t everything, a bronze or silver isn’t a loss, and how in my judging experience a shortlisting often means that someone is in there fighting hard for you. It was going to be called “You have won second prize in a beauty contest” and would probably have referenced the Simpsons episode where Lisa is outdone by Winona Ryder and dreams she’s in an almost-supergroup with Art Garfunkel, John Oates and Jim Messina, singing their #2 hit “Born to Runner-up”… But then they went and spoiled it all. Woo!
The essay is about the way a book’s essence and its physical form interact, what that means for the future of books in the digital age, and what that means for copyright law and enforcement in the face of perfect, costless and just-about-frictionless reproduction. It’s kind of a perfect storm of my colliding interests in writing, technology and law, and I really enjoyed researching it and working it up. It begins with the first known copyright dispute:
The most precious manuscript held by the Royal Irish Academy is RIA MS 12 R 33, a sixth-century book of psalms known as an Cathach (‘the Battler’), or the Psalter of St Columba. It is believed to be the oldest extant Irish psalter, the earliest example of Irish writing – and the world’s oldest pirate copy. According to tradition, St Columba secretly transcribed the manuscript from a psalter belonging to his teacher, St Finian. Finian discovered the subterfuge, demanded the copy, and brought the dispute before Diarmait, the last pagan king of Ireland. The king decreed that ‘to every cow belongs her calf’, and so the copy of a book belonged to the owner of the original. Columba appealed the decision on the battlefield, and defeated Finian in a bloody clash at Cúl Dreimhne. No trace remains of Finian’s original manuscript, if it ever existed. Only ‘The Battler’ survives.
Finian v Columba is difficult to reconcile with modern copyright law. The psalms in question were attributed to God, revealed to David, and translated by St Jerome in the fourth century, so Finian’s claim to copyright in the work is unclear. It may be that the pagan Diarmait simply free-associated his judgment from the calfskin of the Cathach’s pages. But any want of judicial rigour is surely redeemed by the king’s early intuition that there is something valuable about a book beyond its physical self, that it has spirit as well as flesh and a soul beyond its body – as well as by the delicious consequences of an actual military war being fought, at least in part, over a single illegal copy, and of that outlawed copy becoming a national treasure.
You can read the whole thing in the September 2012 issue of Australian Book Review, in print or online. If you’re not a subscriber, you can read the essay and a tonne of other great stuff for $6. Thanks, ABR and CAL!