A morning chat with Liz Henry

Last Wednesday in my Introduction to Professional Writing class we had the opportunity to chat with Liz Henry, writer, literary translator, blogger and self-described computer geek, about copyright law and the open-source movement. Despite technological difficulties involving a failed attempt at communication via Second Life, we finally were able to proceed with the talk with Skype.

It was really interesting to talk with someone who is both a writer and programmer as we go about creating our personal websites and become more familiar with web design. Of particular interest was the discussion on copyright laws, which is obviously important to keep in mind. I agree with the idea that although copyright laws were established with the intent of protecting an author’s work, at times they can be very restrictive and almost harmful to the flow of information. As a translator of Spanish poems, Henry cited her experience in trying to contact the copyright owner of a poem from 1925, with the ultimate conclusion that no one knew who owned the copyright. On a side not, she went ahead and translated it. (Way to go!)

I think that as an artist, whether you are a writer, painter, web designer or software programmer, there is of course the desire to protect your work from being stolen but also the desire to promote a sort of collaborative mentality in sharing ideas. Creative Commons, a site I had never heard of before, is an excellent way to accomplish these seemingly contradictory desires. By deciding how to license one’s creative work online, you can ensure that others can use it without bugging you for permission. As Henry mentioned, perhaps someone will read the work, respect it and hire you because it was made widely available. Overall, Creative Commons will be a great resource in building my web site, and I’m grateful that Henry took the time to discuss it.

In addition, I enjoyed learning about the history of the open source movement, essentially the belief that making software code freely available to programmers is the best way to stimulate the production of robust software. In this way, programmers will be inspired to produce high-quality programs by working together with similarly skilled individuals. The open source movement ties in with our discussion of copyright and Henry’s analogies of the bread recipe and car technology was a great way to understand the concept. She explained that she and many others in the movement want to control and understand their possessions “all the way,” for example looking under the hood of your car to see how it works. With bread, you can purchase it and eat but what if it were illegal to share recipes on how to make bread? That is basically the dilemma the open source movement seeks the overcome. Many people own software, use it and yet never know how to make their own.

I had never thought too much about the concept of openness in programming language and software code, “free speech not as in free beer” as Henry joked, but it does make a lot of sense. If we had more time, I would have liked her to explain more about the open source movement and software that was developed in that way, such as Apache.

One comment Henry made that particularly resonated with me was that she wished she had put more of her work “out there” earlier in order to build her reputation and spread her work. With this class and our portfolio website, I think I have been given an excellent opportunity to take that step and make the most of the array of resources available on the Internet. Like Henry mentioned, the Internet is a great public filing system for my work and an excellent knowledge management system for the information flow. Overall, Henry was a great guest speaker and as I mentioned before, I wish that we had had more time to talk further, especially about the book recovery project she mentioned at the end.

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