Lawrence Lessig and Eldred v.


Lawrence Lessig and Eldred v. Ashcroft

This is a matter near and dear to my heart. It is also one that really steams me. I truly believe in the right of an artist to control his or her own works for as long as he lives or is capable of managing his estate. What really annoys me is the mass of material that is being "held prisoner" for sake of the Mouse. Disney and other large corporate interests have basically purchased longer and longer periods of copyright in order to preserve the status of Mickey Mouse.

If the present copyright law were in force from constitutional times, we would find ourselves in a situation in which Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick would still be covered by copyright. This would effectively bar these words from any form of popular culture as clearing rights to this works would be far beyond anything any motion picture producer would be likely to consider. Think about it. How many "literary" novels published between 1923 and 1970 do you see being made into movies? There is a reason for this. And perhaps the absence of such from cinema is not truly harmful--but. . . Anything published by a young author today could be under copyright for as much as 150 years. While this sounds good, what actually happens is that it dooms this young artist to obscurity from about five to ten years after publication. The vast majority of authors simply go out of print. If their material is in copyright, they will never be picked up and redistributed by public domain sources.

Okay, it's guilty secret time. Two of my favorite authors are H. Rider Haggard and Thorne Smith. Haggard, as a standard has between five and ten of a corpus of about seventy novels in print (usually King Solomon's Mines, She and some selection of the Quatermain novels. A majority of these are now in the public domain in the US, so they are becoming available in electronic formats (see Blackmask in the left column for one location). However, everything published after 1923 has been grandfathered in to the new copyright law. As a result all post 1923 Haggard books are out of print and basically unavailable legally to readers in the US. Readers in Australia are more fortunate as all copyright expires fifty years after the death of the author. Thorne Smith, my second example, may not have a single book in print presently. I have ancient copies of Topper, Topper Takes a Trip, The Rain in the Door, Nightlife of the Gods, I Married a Witch, and The Bishop's Jaegars. These works are essentially unavailable to the reading public in any form whatsoever. Under present copyright law, the works of C.S. Lewis (which under reasonably law would already be public domain) will not become public domain until 2053 (1963 + 90 years). This is ludicrous and ultimately detrimental. If the same were true of much of Chesterton, we would have no editions of his works available.

Eldred v. Ashcroft seeks to redress the harm done through the continuous extension of copyright law. The original framework provided copyright protection for a total of 34 years. While this seems unfair (that an author's work might leave their control during their lifetime) it is certainly more reasonable than the current 100 years or more.

Being one of those authors who might otherwise be remanded to totally obscurity, I ardently support the effort undertaken by Lawrence Lessig to have this control mechanism overturned.

Next week: Why I would like to try to a distributist featuring mega-book-sellers with staffs who know almost nothing about books. (I once called Borders to ask for a book called "Emerson Among the Eccentrics." The Clerk said "Emerson?" I said, "Yes, as in Ralph Waldo Emerson." The Clerk said, "Is that I-m-m-e-r-s-o-n?" From illiterate booksellers and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us.)

Okay--we will now enter the diatribe-free zone. Thank you for listening.

For more cogent, reasoned, and reasonable argument on the same topic see Macaulay on Copyright. The points made therein are as valid today as they were when articulated over 150 years ago.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 23, 2002 5:50 PM.

On Reading Poetry was the previous entry in this blog.

"Judge Not Lest Ye Be is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll