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.
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.
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.