An ode to banned books

Beijing Coma – Ma Jian
In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, when China was on a global charm offensive, Ma Jian’s book Beijing Coma was published. Through the central character Dai Wei, a protester who was shot in Tiananmen Square and fell into a deep coma, Ma presented the other side of the country, an insecure nation afraid of its past and struggling with its present. Ma stated that he wrote the book “to reclaim history from a totalitarian government whose role is to erase it”. I raced through it, went to several book talks he gave and, given the epic proportions of the novel, even enquired about buying the film rights. They were available but I was told that was because few studios would dare take on a work so confronting. To this day the book remains banned in China and no film of it has yet to be made. We are the worse off for that. Jemimah Steinfeld
Are you there God? It’s me Margaret – Judy Blume
As the only child of an amazing single parent, books were a core feature of my childhood. A trip to the library was a joy and visits to the bookshop were a special treat. Getting lost in the pages of a book every night was my happy place and my favourite author as a teenager was Judy Blume. Blume writes beautifully and takes the reader on a journey of exploration of a teenage mind – helping you realise you aren’t alone in being challenged by new experiences and feelings.  While from an Index perspective I should say that my favourite book was the one most banned – Forever (which I loved), my absolute favourite was actually Are you there God? It’s me Margaret. As the only Jewish kid at my school I related to Margaret’s internal conflict and her personal relationship with G-d. Blume remains a personal heroine and every effort to ban her books confirms why the work of Index on Censorship is so important. Ruth Anderson
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence
I had to read DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover at school. I hated it. But I did enjoy the ironies that the attempted prosecution of it for “obscenity” totally undermined the state of the obscenity laws at the time and the court case reaffirmed art’s freedom to say pretty much anything it liked, as long as it was judged to be of literary merit (whatever that means). Those who tried to suppress the book only succeeded in fanning the flames of public interest exponentially, beyond who might otherwise have read it without all the hoo-ha and salacious interest whipped up around it. Public interest was the other marker of whether the book should be permitted, so in bringing the prosecution it rather ensured the inevitable failure of the case. The trial has also been highlighted as the start of societal values changing and ushering in the more permissive 1960s. None of this impacted on DH Lawrence, since he’d been dead for 30 years. Publishers had self-censored by holding off publication until Penguin Books took the plunge and British society was probably never the same again. Now, if only a book could have such a societal impact in the 21st century… David Sewell
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses was the subject of a fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which called for the assassination of its author, Salman Rushdie. The novel is Rushdie’s masterpiece: a comic take on the life of Muhammad that also wraps in the British Indian immigrant experience, Bollywood, Sikh separatism and Hinduism. Its ambition is vast and it deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Its legacy will live well beyond the regime which forced its author into hiding. Martin Bright
Spycatcher –  Peter Wright
I was at university in London when Peter Wright’s Spycatcher was first published and Margaret Thatcher’s government banned it. Wright was a former assistant director of MI5, who was annoyed about the security service’s pension arrangements and decided to blow the whistle over its shadier activities in order to recoup some money for his retirement in Australia. In the 1980s, the workings of the security services were shrouded in secrecy and the book caused huge ripples with its stories of Soviet moles and the then advanced technologies that were being used to spy on Britain’s ‘enemies’. I still remember reading the first chapter and finding out that a nondescript building around the corner from my university department I passed every day was used by MI5 for its covert operations. As the book was not banned in Australia or Scotland, its contents gradually leaked and Thatcher’s government was forced to admit defeat and the book ban was dropped. Mark Stimpson
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Look on the shelves of certain school districts in Texas, Michigan and Florida and you’ll find an empty space where The Handmaid’s Tale used to be, after book challenges led to its removal. Atwood’s most famous book might have been published in 1985, but it still has the power to scare self-appointed censors today. The graphic novel, too, is just as excellent and just as hated by censors. In the dystopian Gilead patriarchal structures are taken to the absolute extreme. A woman’s body is not her own – she is judged by her capacity for baby-making. Even her vocabulary is closely monitored. But the way this society was created is even more concerning, with events in the novel inspired by real-world happenings. It’s a book worth reading again and again – it hit home differently when I was a wide-eyed student to how it does now that I’m a mother, and still sends the same chill in a 2023 context. Katie Dancey-Downs
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird explores complex themes of race, justice, and humanity, bringing a degree of warmth to heavy subject matter by using the perspective of child protagonist Scout Finch to invoke a sense of innocence, even while tackling difficult topics. Although the book is considered a modern classic, it has been subject to bans and challenges due to its use of profanity, racial slurs, and adult themes. The language and subject matter may make it an uncomfortable read for some, but the overriding message of tolerance and morality is both important and necessary. Daisy Ruddock
Animal Farm – George Orwell
There’s always a book you read that, when you reflect back on, has made an impression on your whole life. For me it was Animal Farm by George Orwell. I first read the book as a teenager and it made me think about the meaning behind the role of governments and the issues of right and wrong, greed and the corruption of power. When I watched the world news and saw the power and restrictions that states placed on their citizens, a book published in 1945 showed me how the world turns and how little change there can be without true democracy. Cathy Parry
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman made its way to me through my grandmother. This was how I often got the books that have stuck with me nearly two decades later. I wonder whether she knew what she did would be so frowned upon by those in the US states who took offence to its apparent “anti-Christian” message? His Dark Materials is glorious collection of young adult books, which snuck in complex messages without patronising the readers. In fact, it challenges and provokes the readers in a manner that sent my teenage brain racing. Also how can you not love a polar bear wearing armour? Nik Williams
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Ireland that I was born into was a cold house for women. There was no access to abortion, no divorce and marital rape had only recently been outlawed. Since then, public opinion has been reshaped and laws have been liberalised, largely as a result of ordinary women speaking out about their personal experiences. That’s why The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is important. It’s a rare example of a canonical work about the life of a young woman as told in her own words. The semi-autobiographical novel, which was previously banned in Ireland and remains banned in some US states, is a coming-of-age story following a young woman at odds with 1950s US society. It challenges the conventional roles of women and explores the difficult, and still tabooed, subject of mental illness. Jessica Ní Mhainín

Pullman v. Casserly: The future of copyright

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman


Copyright is simple to understand, except when those who want to get rid of it start complicating the explanation.

If I write a book, the right to make money from it belongs to me, and I make an agreement with a publisher who will print it and distribute it, collect the money it sells for, and pass on a small proportion to me. Anyone who wants to read it either has to buy it, in which case I get that small proportion of the money it sells for, or borrow it from a library, in which case the librarian counts the number of times that title is borrowed, passes on the details to the Public Lending Right administrators, and I’m paid a small sum for each borrowing.

Quite a number of people make money in the course of these processes. The editor, the jacket designer, the publicist, the printer, the library assistant, the bookshop manager, the PLR administrator, and others, all earn a living on the back of the fact that I and my fellow authors have written books that people want to read. And so do I, and that’s as it should be: we all contribute to the process of bringing my book to the public. Our rewards vary, of course: if my book sells a lot of copies I might make more money in a year than the bookshop manager, whereas if it sells very few I’ll make a great deal less. But that’s the risk I take, and on the whole this system is fair, and most authors see the justice of it.

What happens when someone buys my book and lends it to a friend? Well, I don’t get a penny for that, of course. Nor do I get a penny when they decide they would rather get rid of the book and give it to Oxfam, who sells it second-hand. But those transactions are pretty few, and I can put up with the anguish of making no money from them by thinking that, after all, they increase the number of my readers, who might buy my next book themselves.

Now suppose that someone sees there’s money to be made from books, and decides to print and distribute my book themselves, without any agreement with me, and keep all the money they get from it. They’d be fairly stupid to do that, because this is where the law of copyright comes in. They’re not allowed to do it. It’s against the law. That’s why it very rarely happens now, although it used to happen a great deal before international copyright agreements came into existence. Charles Dickens, for example, made no money at all from the vast sale of his books in the United States, and he was justly angered about it.

But nowadays that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Except … Someone invented the internet. And instead of going to the great difficulty and trouble of printing, binding, distributing, and so forth, in order to steal someone else’s literary or musical work, all the thief has to do is press a few keys, and they can make our work available to anyone in the world, and take all the money for themselves. This is most familiar to us in the field of music, of course. The ease and swiftness with which music can be acquired in the form of MP3 downloads is still astonishing even to those of us who have been building up our iTunes list for some time.

Some of us take the moral route, and pay for it, but many don’t. I had a long argument with a young man a year or two ago, a bright, decent student who was going to work in the field of the arts himself, who maintained that he had a right to download anything he wanted without paying for it, because it was there and he could do it. What about the money you’re stealing from the artist? I asked. Well, first of all it wasn’t stealing, he said, it was more like breathing the air that was available to everyone; and secondly, making music was something the musician would do anyway, as a hobby, and downloading it wouldn’t stop them from doing it; and thirdly, if they wanted to make money they should do as other musicians did, and perform live gigs, and go on tour, and sell merchandise at the door.

Then there’s YouTube. The pianist Krystian Zimerman was recently playing at a festival in Essen, Germany, when he spotted a member of the audience filming him on a phone. He stopped playing and left the stage, and  “explained on his return that he had lost recording contracts in the past because his playing of the works in question had already been uploaded onto the internet where people could see it for free,” according to BBC Music Magazine.

Books are slightly different, but the principle is the same. The internet only shows up in stark terms how like a cobweb the law of copyright is when confronted with the sheer force wielded by large corporations. As Richard Morrison wrote in BBC Music Magazine: “Google has been adept at fostering the impression that it is merely an altruistic and democratic ‘platform’ – a digital version of Speaker’s Corner – rather than a commercial publisher that is as accountable to the laws of copyright, libel and theft as any old-fashioned ‘print’ publisher would be. That Google has managed to sustain this illusion of being something like a charity or public service is astonishing, since it is a massively profitable global corporation with ways of minimising its tax bill that many would consider to be the opposite of public-spirited.” At the end of his article Morrison said: “If you quote me, I promise not to sue.”

The technical brilliance is so dazzling that people can’t see the moral squalor of what they’re doing. It is outrageous that anyone can steal an artist’s else’s work and get away with it. It is theft, as surely as reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet is theft. Writers and musicians work in poverty and obscurity for years in order to bring their work to a pitch of skill and imaginative depth that gives delight to their audiences, and as soon as they achieve that, the possibility of making a living from it is taken away from them. There are some who are lucky enough to do well despite the theft and the piracy that goes on all around them; there are many more who are not. The principle is simple, and unaltered by technology, science, or magic: if we want to enjoy the work that someone does, we should pay for it.

Cathy Casserly

Cathy Casserly


The world is changing. Being a creator means something different today from what it meant a few years ago. And, let’s be honest, the change hasn’t been all good. The seemingly endless parade of newspapers shutting their doors or slashing their budgets is a stark reminder that it’s hard to make a living as a content creator. Today’s writers, photographers, and musicians must think very creatively about how to distribute and monetize their work, and the solutions they arrive at may look very different from the ways previous generations of artists made money.

In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about Spotify and similar music streaming services, and whether they pay artists fairly. The debate underscores the larger issue, that traditional distribution models are quickly becoming obsolete. The new generation of artists must be as cutting-edge with its business models as it is with its art.

According to world-renowned science fiction author Cory Doctorow, “My problem is not piracy, it’s obscurity.” Years ago, Cory decided that making it easy for people to download his books would do more for his career than trying to make it hard would. In other words, Cory doesn’t see people accessing and sharing his work online as a threat; he sees it as his livelihood. In a lot of ways, Cory represents the new possibilities for creators in the digital age. The creators who are thriving today are the ones who use Internet distribution most innovatively; in fact, the ones who are most generous with their work often reap the most reward.

But copyright was created in an analog age. By default, copyright closes the door on countless ways that people can share, build upon, and remix each other’s work, possibilities that were unimaginable when those laws were established. For Cory and artists like him, people sharing and creatively reusing their work literally translates into new fans and new revenue streams. That’s the problem with the all-or-nothing approach to copyright. The All Rights Reserved default doesn’t just restrict the kinds of reuse that eat into your sales; it also restricts the kinds of reuse that can help you build a following in the first place.

I work for Creative Commons, a global nonprofit organization that offers a set of open content licenses which lets creators take copyright into their own hands. By licensing her works under a Creative Commons license, a creator can turn All Rights Reserved into Some Rights Reserved, permitting others to reuse her works as long as they properly attribute her and, if she chooses, comply with one or two additional conditions. We’re not anti-copyright; in fact, our tools go hand-in-hand with copyright. Without the strength of copyright protection behind them, the conditions of a Creative Commons license would be unenforceable. Creative Commons licenses are written by expert copyright lawyers and have been upheld in court numerous times.

What’s more exciting than the licenses’ track record in court is their impact on the world. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers are using our tools to build new creative communities and redefine how artists share, collaborate, and monetize. Scientists and other researchers are publishing their papers and data openly, letting others carry their work forward more swiftly. Governments are starting to require open licensing on resources and research that they fund, ensuring that the public has full access to what it paid for. Educators are building textbooks and other educational resources that anyone can use and customize at no cost, helping to bring higher quality education to communities with limited resources.

Of course, open licensing alone isn’t what makes a creator successful. Cory is successful because he’s a gifted and hard-working writer. Amanda Palmer is famous thanks to her songwriting talent and charisma. Jonathan Worth wouldn’t be a sought-after photographer if he didn’t have a knack for taking perfect shots. These people aren’t successful because of Creative Commons. But they are successful, in part, because they found ways to let the power of the Internet carry their careers to new heights. And for each of them, that strategy included sharing their work widely under an open license.

It’s impossible to imagine how new technologies will redefine the next generation of creative professionals, but I believe that the most innovative creators won’t try to go back in time. Instead, they’ll use new technologies to their own benefit and that of their peers. They’ll carry technology forward rather than trying to fight it back. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Philip Pullman is the president of the Society of Authors @Soc_of_Authors

Cathy Casserly is chief executive of Creative Commons @cathycasserly

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This article is reproduced from the autumn 2013 edition of Index on Censorship magazine, which will be published on 1 Oct.

Philip Pullman on censorship and offence

This is really quite brilliant. Philip Pullman is asked whether his new book on Jesus is “offensive”.


“It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That’s all I have to say on that subject.”

Hat tip: Cory Doctorow