Michaeline: Copyrights of the Future?

This week on my corner of Twitter, there’s been a lot of discussion about copyright, and how long it should last. Someone suggested 30 years after publication! (See below.) The discussion isn’t about a real-world change in laws, as far as I can tell, but a what-if scenarios that may stem from the Dr. Seuss estate pulling some of the Seuss books with racist imagery. As a lot of internet conversations do, the discussion has drifted from the original “problem” to a lot of different ideas about how to do things. Some “solutions” are silly, some are impractical but some have brought up some great tangential points.

In my corner of Twitter, Dr. Seuss wasn’t even mentioned. I’ll get into that later. The reason why it caught my attention is that most writers I know there are extremely concerned about their rights, their old age, and taking care of dependents who may not be able to take care of themselves.

A mid-30s slightly balding writer is seated at a table, writing, in a sparse room while Death as a skeleton aims a spear flagged with "Finis" at his chest. The man is holding up the left hand to ward off Death, but holds onto the quill with his right.
Copyright and royalties can mean a lot to a struggling author facing death. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In general, writers are also readers, and many readers would like to be writers. So, I would say there’s a significant minority of readers who see both sides of the copyright problem.

In America right now, copyright is for the life of an author plus 70 years. (For all the ifs, ands and buts, visit Copyright.gov. The website is a cornucopia of copyright facts in America.) It’s basically the same in the UK, but I’m sure there are some different details. (British Library) In Japan, it’s the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. (Page 5 of this PDF) The problem for me as a reader

is that I hear about a book from a friend or in another book, and am desperately curious to read it. Or maybe I read a book in my younger days, before a house fire destroyed my teenage library, and want to read it again. If it’s in the public domain, I can often find someone has put in the work to make it available.

But if it still falls under copyright, it may be out of my reach because it’s out of print, or going for outrageous amounts of money. For example, I wrote in comments earlier this year about my search for A Sense of Words, by Madeline Charlton (March 1977). I found it on Amazon, much to my delight, and ordered it for 1,670 yen, but it hasn’t arrived yet. I blame Corona. It is currently available for $2.25 used, but to get it “new” you’d have to pay $129!

How much nicer for me if Madeline Charlton or her estate made the book available electronically. But, for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. The next best thing would be if someone else made it available electronically.

Readers are selfish. They want what they want, they want it now, and they don’t want to spend too much money. For writers, it’s a different story. In general, they would like to be paid, and they would like to have some passive income when they are old and decrepit and unable to write anymore. Someone also mentioned on Twitter that some writers may be writing because they are a caretaker for adult children who can’t go out and earn a living; writing means they can work from home, and there’s a possibility that their writing can provide a passive income stream to pay for medications and care for their children after they die.

Some people try to argue with that on Twitter, but I think it’s still a valid point. Copyright needs to protect the author so they can write, earn a return on their work, and prevent exploitation while they are living.

Four elderly women in Elizabethan ruffs are at a table with money. One is pointing to a book, the other is writing something on a chalkboard. They really manage a leprosy asylum, but they do seem like they have it together as far as money goes.
Mutual aid societies for writers? Not a bad idea! Check your professional organizations and see what they offer, and how you can help. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

So, many people have proposed the copyright laws they’d like to see. A lot of people make a distinction between the individual writer/creator and the corporate copyright holder, some saying that a corporation should only hold copyright for 30 years, then letting it go into the public domain.

My proposal for literary copyright would go something like this. Copyright is valid for the lifetime of the writer, and a designated living person. If the writer doesn’t designate a person to carry on the copyright, it goes into public domain upon death. If the writer suddenly dies without designating a copyright holder, then that’s tragic, but part of life’s gambles. Perhaps there could be some sort of compassionate exception for relatives of writers in great need of financial help, or if there are more than one incapacitated children and/or spouse involved.

I’d make it easier for corporations or mutual aid societies to help living writers set up digital and print-on-demand options. Maybe it would be pizza money, but when a person is on a very fixed, limited income, pizza is a very nice treat indeed.

I’d also set up a pathway for prosecuting small-time copyright infringements. A very clear process that when someone simply steals a book and sets it up under the author’s name, they owe the author or estate a consideration.

Over tea at breakfast, I came up with a whole boring scheme for this involving the last price the author sold the book in question for, and ranges and scales for digital, paperback and hardback books. I’ll expand in the comments if anyone is interested.

I bet I miss some important points in my proposal. Would you change copyright law in your country? If so, how? If not, what do you like about it?

I would like to include this tweet from Neil Gaiman.

“Seeing the enthusiasm on the parts of a corner of Twitter for removing income from elderly and disadvantaged authors reminds me to link to https://authorsleaguefund.org/apply/ Writers helping writers since 1916.”

(March 5, 2021)

There are aid societies out there for authors who are aging or run into financial difficulties, and I think it’s important for writers to know about these options, to donate when times are good, and to have as an emergency back-up when life goes to crap. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America have three benevolent funds for grants, emergencies and legal aid. https://www.sfwa.org/about/benevolent-funds/

LATER: What’s Dr. Seuss got to do with it? Well, from my brief search, it seems that Matt Yglesias tweeted that the solution to the Dr. Seuss estate “cancelling” the six books with racist imagery is to demand that Congress shorten copyright terms.

“I actually have a proposed remedy for Dr Seuss which is that congress should act to make copyright terms shorter.” – Matt Yglesias, March 3, 2021

User Trolley Switcher replies:

“yes they should be much shorter, 30 years from publication or author’s death, whichever happens first, and then hard working entrepreneurs can publish special editions of the seuss book w/ the ethnic stereotypes even more exaggerated” – Trolley Switcher, March 3, 2021

It’s very interesting that Trolley Switcher only got one retweet and 17 likes, considering the amount of conversation his “30 years after publication” has generated.

See also Kay’s post this week about Theodor “Seuss” Geisel — “What’s Up, Doc?” https://eightladieswriting.com/2021/03/04/kay-whats-up-doc/

Lots to think about! I’ll be keeping an especially good eye on the comments this week.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Copyrights of the Future?

  1. Not sure I agree with writing off situations where the author failed to designate a copyright holder as an unfortunate but unavoidable tragedy. If an author and her husband are killed, leaving a popular body of work and four children, it would be nice if the kids weren’t left destitute.

    Not seeing much consideration of piracy here, which is a significant problem. I know a bestselling, award-winning scifi romance writer whose publisher dropped her because piracy had reduced her profitability to un unsustainable level.

    When the copyright disappears, the publisher’s revenue stream also disappears, so there’s something else that needs to be taken into account.

    • I’m sorry — I had the best intentions of staying on top of this post this week, and then we had family stuff — rather good family stuff, but I was up to my ears in cleaning.

      I agree that the kids shouldn’t be destitute — I would like to see special pathways to ownership written into the law for kids or other relatives. I can’t go into details because I have no idea how that would work. DNA tests? Recognized children only? Financial hardship tests?

      Piracy is a weird thing. I saw a quote from Neil Gaiman that said piracy kind of worked out for him in that it worked as free advertising. People bought a lot more of his subsequent books.

      But, that’s only in a society where piracy is illegal, and people are morally taught that it’s wrong and cheating the author. I had an annotated version of A Christmas Carol that explained how Charles Dickens lost loads of money in America because publishers were stealing his words and publishing them. So, that’s one end game of no punishment for piracy. I would like to see a small claims court for the small-time piracy that rewards the author at least the price of the book and (small) court costs. And of course, publishers ought to take up the cudgel of the courts when it comes to big time piracy.

      When copyright expires, publishers will still benefit. They can still make cheaper versions, or more gorgeous versions, or annotated versions. The only thing is, they have to make it better than everyone else, because everyone else also has access to the plain copy.

      Plus, they’ll be able to publish more easily take-offs from an expired copyright. David Bowie wanted to make a musical about Orwell’s 1984, but the widow said “No way!” as was her perogative, so he had to be more transformative with his work. He still got away with songs like “Big Brother.” Look at all the people who have ripped off Pride and Prejudice. Some were great (I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary), and some were . . . well, still good because the basic story of Pride and Prejudice was still there. I’m looking at the &Zombies version here. Publishers made a boatload off of that public domain property, yet, it’s still selling books today as itself — and we REMEMBER the book and still love it.

  2. My thinking on copyrights is a bit muddled.

    As a reader, when I see a $14.95 price tag for the Kindle version of a ~200 page book whose author has been dead for decades, I wonder where that money is going and wish the book was in the public domain somewhere. (I hadn’t thought about the authors heirs; that makes me feel better.)

    As a writer, I’m definitely in favor of an author being able to protect the rights of their creation, whether to their personal benefit or to the benefit of their designated heir(s) for as long as they or their heirs are alive. If I own a business, it’s mine. When I die, I can choose to bequeath it to my heirs or sell it, but that’s my choice. A writer’s books are, in essence, their “company”, so it makes sense that authors should be able to maintain control, without an arbitrary time limitation.

    Would I like to be able to get books, especially books from way-back-when at a low cost (or download for free from somewhere) – sure, just like I’d like to be able to buy anything at a low cost, but not to the detriment of an author who has spent a lot of time and effort to create the book to begin with.

    I can definitely support the idea of help for writers to set up digital and print-on-demand options, and prosecution of copyright infringements.

    • I agree with you completely. We have to pay writers. I think writers should have a chance to pass on intergenerational wealth to a certain extent (sort of like passing on land that produces a good revenue . . . but just like land, an intellectual property needs tending in order to make money).

      There are more dangers to pirating than paying, say, $7.99 for an ebook for most people. I’ll confess, my only experience on the Good Ship Jolly Roger was for a TV program I really loved. I was a bundle of nerves each week as I downloaded it . . . was this the week I was going to catch a computer virus? As soon as the DVDs came out, I bought them, and I only had the stomach for this danger for a couple of years. I finally started waiting for the DVDs instead of spending an hour each week tending to the seeds and whatnot.

      I’d like to add, for a lot of people in English-speaking countries, the library still seems to be a very viable option for ebooks and old books.

      To prevent piracy, I think we need to help authors buy back their rights, set up digital and print-on-demand (as you say), and also have easy contact points so translators can easily contact writers, and vice versa. A sort of cooperative press, I guess. Someone mentioned that a SF writer named Pournelle had a group that would help older writers do this. I can’t find the quote or anything to support this, but it does sound like a good idea.

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