Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Fifty Six Years Is Enough
Watching (and thoroughly enjoying) Elementary last week set my mind drifting to the question of copyright. How wonderful, I thought, that the character of Sherlock Holmes, having achieved literary immortality, is now in the public domain, allowing a new generation of writers and filmmakers unlimited freedom to adapt Holmes and Watson to the modern era or invent new stories featuring them in their own time.
It turns out that, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, I was misinformed.
A couple of days later, I came across an article in the Times about how the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle has been aggressively collecting licensing fees from authors and filmmakers wanting to use Holmes (and/or Watson) as characters, even though most of the stories were written before the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The reasoning is that ten of them were first published in the U.S. in 1923, are still subject to the copyright law, and, being part of an entire body of work featuring the character of Holmes render the character still protected. That argument is now being challenged in court, and it will be fascinating to see how it turns out.
Fourteen Years Is Not Enough
America’s first copyright law was passed in 1790 and provided that an original work could be copyrighted for a period of 14 years, with an option to extend the copyright another 14 if necessary. In 1909 the law was amended (not for the first time) to make the copyright period 28 years with a 28-year renewal. Beginning in 1976 the periods were progressively extended to the point where a copyright is now good for 95 to 120 years, with no need for renewal.
At the risk of sounding like Glenn Beck, I think they had it pretty much right in 1909. If the 28-28 rule were still in effect, readers everywhere would benefit from cheap editions (print and online) of such books as A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, Gone With The Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, and more than half the writings of Agatha Christie.
Copyright law, as originally conceived, had two purposes: to protect the authors of creative work and to ensure that that work eventually entered the public domain and became broadly available to the public and subject to use and interpretation by other creators. Instead, we have such absurdities as the just-released Oz the Great and Powerful being unable to use Dorothy’s ruby slippers because they are deemed to be protected under the copyright of the 1939 Wizard of Oz.
When My Ox Is Being Gored
Last year, I published my first mystery novel, so I suppose I should be grateful for the benefits of a 95-year copyright, in the event the book really takes off at some point along the line. I still think it’s ridiculous. That’s three times longer than I have any reasonable expectation of living, and my only son would be 117 years old when the copyright expired. A 56-year copyright would have been just fine, even if it leaves Nick without royalties at the age of 78. I expect he’ll be able to take care of himself at that point.
If my book were to go into the public domain in 56 years, there’s a chance that someone might discover it, bring it back to life in a cheap e-book edition, and get some new readers for it, in some way keeping my memory alive. When I’m dead, that would be more important than getting some hypothetical royalties into the hands of a geezer great-grandchild I never knew.