This is not about copyright as it is known in the publishing and legal world.
I’ve been thinking for a while about the moral rights to stories. This growing discussion includes first nations, Twelve Step groups, writing culture, West Coast culture and more. From the personal to the anthropological, settler society (that’s us, non-indigenous types) has shifted perspective to recognizing ownership of stories in a new way. At Cafe Veneto on Douglas St. this morning, over eggs, toast and coffee, another writer and I touched on story ownership. She (call her Ann) had felt uncomfortable when another writer (call her Betty), said she liked Ann’s idea and would take it. Ann’s alarm bells went off. “Boundaries!”, she told me over coffee. “Betty never asked permission.” Boundaries are a big thing in therapy and in West Coast culture.
First Nations on the West Coast of British Columbia generally recognize that stories, mythical or personal, belong to a particular person to tell. Officially, ownership of a particular story can be passed down. Otherwise, there exists a strong bias against telling the stories. A traditional Carrier elder I met in the 1990s in Quesnel, in the Interior of BC, told me a little fact or two about her dead husband, a former chief. She would not tell me more; she said that was his story to tell.That tradition continues.This first nations value is seeping into a broader society.
Twelve Step groups, particularly AA and Al-Anon, drum into those who come that others have the right to define their stories but not to define yours. When I lived in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, the city was populated with Twelve Step groups of every stripe, and it seemed most people knew the principles. I learned I could not define someone else as an alcoholic, for example. The drinker was the only one who could. As a family member or friend, all I could do was to tell my own story, admit the situation was a problem for me, and trust I would learn enough from my own narrative. And you know, I have learned. Shifting focus to my own story has been extremely freeing.
New writers in particular, but also some more experienced ones, are often uncomfortable that others may lift–or steal–their ideas. Well, the reply to that has always been that ideas cannot be copyrighted, although the wording can be. Yet if someone uses my idea without crediting me, how I personally respond is on a continuum. Is it a rare, brand-new, never-before-thought-of idea? (Unlikely.) An old, well-known one, just recycled? It’s not easy to give a black and white answer when you are looking at shades of grey. At the cafe this morning, Ann clarified that she well knew another writer would word Ann’s idea differently, and they wouldn’t be stealing her idea. Ann’s bump of objection came up when the other writer said: “I’m going to take that and use it,” without asking permission. I suspect she wanted what most of us want–a community that takes the time to honour each member.
“Hmmm, boundaries,” I reflected, intrigued by her story that added a new insight to my musings about moral rights to a story. I looked at Ann. “I can see how that concept from therapy intersects with similar ideas from first nations, Twelve Step groups and other sectors. I think I’ll use that.” And meant it.
The words had leapt out of my mouth. What can one do?
Across the table, we ironically raised palms to each other and smacked them together in a high-five.