Audrey N. Glickman
Audrey N. Glickman

Who Owns Our Work? Who Can Own Us?

Eight-inch floppy goes up in smoke, along with my more recent DavkaWriter documents. Image created by Audrey N. Glickman. Used with permission.
Eight-inch floppy goes up in smoke, along with my more recent DavkaWriter documents. Image created by Audrey N. Glickman. Used with permission.

Did you write that?  Did you draw that?  Do you own it?  Do we control our own work?  I am not asking about a painting we might create for an advertisement (or for this blog post) or inventing a widget for the company that employs us.  I am talking about a “physical” thing that has gone out of our control.

I speak here not of copyright laws, nor of patent laws, but of some needed landlord/tenant rental legislation.

I speak of privacy, not so much of plagiarism.  I also speak of insecurity, of potential public theft or even total loss.

In fact, I am asking you to help me contemplate this.

Think of your own work:  both the emphatic posting you just wrote on social media and the thesis you just finalized for your Ph.D.  Think of the really sweet holiday coloring book your organization just created, and of the educational video you are producing to help with societal issues.

When Michelangelo bought a block of marble, he put it into his studio and proceeded to carve it.  When Caravaggio bought a canvas, he stretched it and framed it and sized it and eventually painted on it.  He probably bought pigments and mixed his own paints, too.  When Hemingway wrote a manuscript, it was with pen and tablet, handed to his publisher.

But we are getting away from this, I fear.  We no longer own our tools, and often we can barely even control them.

What am I talking about, already?

Well, this deep questioning actually began with the beloved program DavkaWriter.  In my work I often type in Hebrew, with the vowels and accents and often with cantillation marks, too. I work in a synagogue and we generally need our diacritical markings. In our latest computer upgrade, we lost our access to DavkaWriter, because the company is no longer in business and the program is not supported on our new platform.

Google searching led the computer folks to believe that we could still type our vowels in Microsoft Word and in Google Docs, but our computers do not support either of those workarounds.

Anyway, that got me thinking.  If we type in Google Docs, we are trusting a large corporation to hold our documents on someone else’s computers somewhere else in the world, and we likely will have to pay for the privilege.  If we type in Microsoft Word, we will be continually paying (and trusting) a different large corporation for access to our documents.  Where we used to simply buy a program (for me it cost at least a month’s salary) and then own it for our own use, now the software we use lives on someone else’s computer.

Now we only type things in places owned by major corporations.

Major corporations fairly well own our documents.  Put down that pen and tablet – you haven’t yet paid your monthly rent on them!

And it isn’t just documents, it’s artwork, too.  Where we used to be able to buy, for instance, the Adobe suite of programs (or their predecessors from before Adobe bought them), now we have to rent them and keep on paying and paying to maintain access to our own work product.  And we need to remain connected to the internet to access our work; we cannot take our computer to the woods to write the modern Walden.

It’s really not unlike the current U.S. real estate market, where housing is so expensive that more and more developers are buying it up and renting it out, rather than our enjoying a neighborhood of homeowners borrowing each others’ gardening tools.  In the end, we keep on paying and paying and paying, and we own nothing.

A person I know is still using the old Microsoft Word on her computer, because she doesn’t want to have to pay ransom to any company holding her documents hostage.

And she is right, it is like making ransom payments!  They charge you by the month for the right to use their software, which is not something they keep producing like electricity or clean water.  Even if you only design something once a year you have to pay every month for the privilege.

Moreover, once you cancel your “subscription,” you are constantly bombarded by reminders.  Documents try to open using the programs which are now gone.  Or you can’t open anything you failed to convert before giving up the contract.

Or worse, there is no program format to convert to, as is the case with DavkaWriter.  (Our work platform is not Apple-based.  I do understand there are Apple-based options.)

Back in the dark ages before personal computers were popular, and while typewriters were still in use, we had word processing machines.  I fondly remember one made by NBI (whose name stood for “nothing but initials”), possibly the best publishing program I’ve ever worked with, and the finest company supporting it.  The folks there were highly responsive to our requests for improvements and modifications.  But they inhabited the moment when desktop computers were being invented.  Had they only been able to adapt their program to the conformation of the keyboard of a Mac or a PC, they would have remained competitive.  But they folded, leaving us with our unreadable 8” floppy disks full of saved documents.

Thus as the rental models developed, we have been dumbed down from fine software to the mundane, simplistic, “user-friendly” models.  Word and Word Perfect may have initially been made for secretaries, as was the (often better) software of their competition, including such programs as Mass-11 and Lotus 1‑2‑3, but they have devolved into the common-person device, meant to allow Joe Schmo to create a pretty letter and make his secretary obsolete using the point-and-click method that no secretary would ever fully accept.

Nowadays the goals of fewer keystrokes and not having to look at the page while typing do not matter.  We must conform to the limits of the programs.  We can no longer shift around the carriage to get the paper in exactly the right place.  (Need I mention the cost of printer ink when we only print once a month and the ink dries out?)

As I mentioned, we must keep on paying the creator of the software for ever and ever, even if we are just one individual at home in the den and not a large corporation needing continuing technical support.  On the other hand, some say that our work is more secure that way, lest our own computers die and take the work with them, and it is accessible from wherever they are with whatever device.

I do understand that we are already completely owned, my children remind me of this often.  Our every move is followed.  Folks can already steal our keystrokes right from our fingertips if they wish.  But shouldn’t we have a bit more outrage?  This stuff is our own creative product!  These are our sensitive documents, our secrets being typed for personal purposes.  This is our artwork and our music – yes, the music, too! – that should be our own secret until it is ready to be revealed to the world, but we are sharing it on public computers, clouds and such, and creating it all with programs that are stored somewhere else as well.

Let me put this another way.  The databases of our organizations are also stored on other companies’ computers encoded in software which we do not own.  Piles of data about special interest groups are held under someone else’s promised security.  In these contentious times, is that really secure?  How easy is it to cancel us, to delete us?

That typewriter with a cloth ribbon is still in the basement, if only the publishers would accept my work in that form.

I know someone who is composing a book in Google Docs.  He is trusting that the company will stay solvent, remain online, and will not shut down his work.  Though he is saving down copies of it in some other proprietary format just in case it somehow gets corrupted, still it seems too vulnerable for my tastes.  The concept of going out into the public plaza to work out your tap dance routine rather than staying inside until it is ready for prime time seems wrong.  No wonder there’s not much tap dancing on tv anymore!

But then I think again.  Do we need to hide away to create?  Should our work move more toward crowd sourcing?

It is cheap and easy to publish now – all we need is a Facebook or Instagram or TikTok account and we can publish whatever we wish.  No printing companies are involved, no copyright (though it is implied based on the date of publication).  Precious little curating.  The publication, though, is dependent upon the social media company remaining a viable entity, keeping its content online, and not messing with what is there.  Some folks don’t even trust their butcher to give them the proper cut of beef, but they will put their life’s work and their life stories online for all to see.

Maybe I am wrong about this.  Maybe this is the new way to live.

But when someone pulls the plug, it will be like trying to resurrect that 8” floppy disk.  It will be the Library of Alexandria all over again – the collected knowledge of the world will all simply be gone.

A while back, Google announced it was closing down its photo sharing app.  We all scrambled to copy down the photos to our computers.  Some folks never got the message.  Similarly, the MyFamily site went out of business, and all our shared family information had to be saved to our individual computers in awkward formats.

When anything changes in these companies’ products, we are expected to become accustomed to it.  We do not get to carve our own piece of marble, we may not use our own tools.  With deference to my friends who actually do carve marble and wood and plaster and clay in their own shops behind their homes, many of our tools now are owned by someone else, even though we have purchased them.  Where we used to pay money for Microsoft Excel or PhotoShop and then own it, now we pay money for it and keep on paying and paying and paying.  It becomes something that is a liability in more ways than we can count – our Microsoft password can be stolen, we can forget to pay the bill and lose access to our documents, we can be hacked and all of our documents trashed, Microsoft can be hacked and everything destroyed.

Because we must create things online, everything on our computers is subject to ransomware.  We cannot have a “personal” personal computer anymore.  Everything must be “connected.”

At least for the moment companies are still publishing books one can hold in one’s hand, and artists are still painting on canvases which we presume belong to them to resell to us with their work thereon.  (Thank goodness for self-publishing and the art store down the block!)  There are folks creating okay art and word programs which are improving.  And there are a few musicians who are putting out vinyl records lately, though they are producing fewer and fewer CDs.  My grown children feel that it’s worth it to pay a monthly amount that used to buy me two whole record albums (if I had the money to spare) to have access to music whenever they want to hear it.  But they can only hear it through that one device.  They can’t burn “play lists” for their car tape decks anymore, they have to do it electronically on the fly, remembering which tunes they like rather than looking through the record cabinet.  Do the artists make as much money from this method?  I don’t know.  Are ASCAP and BMI happy about it?  At least the copyrights are preserved, more or less, except possibly for the sampling that seems to be so popular now.

When I was in college majoring in the arts, we were told that we were not expected to go into such things for a living.  We were told that was not a good path to financial solvency.  (That didn’t stop many of us.)

Maybe they should have encouraged us to own studio space and theaters and publishing companies, because that is now the weak point in the arts – artists can’t afford to rent such spaces, much less own them, and the larger publishing companies will barely look at new writers.  Investors?  How about some magnanimity?  We artists own so little now.  Maybe even just a corner of a warehouse as a prop shop?

Our professors never could have dreamed of someone else owning the very tools of creation, and charging rent for their use while risking the security of our work.

I really have come to no conclusion about all of this.  At this point I only see a broadly troubling trend.

A few years back I found an old three-ring notebook from grade school.  In music class, we had to keep notebooks in a certain prescribed order, complete and correct, and neatly arranged, compiling them over the four years we used them.  The first page of my notebook – still intact after many years in an attic without climate control – shows I received a “D” in “reinforcements.”  (Those are little adhesive hole-reinforcers to help the pages keep their holes intact against the binder rings.)   The teacher thought I hadn’t used enough reinforcements to preserve my work.

Just think how much rent I would owe now for each of those little reinforcements.

About the Author
Author of POCKETS: The Problem with Society Is in Women's Clothing (www.AudreyGlickman.com), Audrey N. Glickman is a rabbi’s assistant, with prior experience in nonprofits, government, advertising, and as a legal secretary. A native Pittsburgher, Audrey has served on many boards, organizations, and committees, advocating for many causes, including equal rights, secure recountable voting, preserving the earth, good government, improving institutions, and understanding and tending to our fellow human beings.
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