Fortune Or Fame, Money Or Immortality

I’ve posted Stephen King’s observations on what should motivate us as writers. Let’s say that’s a given: We write because we can’t not write.

The secondary question becomes: What do we want to do with that writing?

(Now, some of what follows will apply to all forms of creativity, but other parts will apply very specifically to writing text, be it prose or poetry, novels or short stories, journalism or fiction. Draw from it what ye may…)

As stated elsewhere, I’m no fan of the current extremely long[1] copyright on new material.

The shortest current copyright duration in the US is 95 years for a work-for-hire published within 25 years of when it was created (if created as a work-for-hire but never published, copyright is 120 years from the date of creation).

The longest copyright is the life of the creator + 70 years, which -- assuming a work is created at age 25 and the creator dies at age 75 -- is 125 years but could run longer.

Now, if the objective is to control use of the material and see that one gets money from every use, these copyrights seem like a good idea.

However, as has been demonstrated, that’s not what copyright exists for.

If the objective is to see to it that one’s work survives to another generation, that it is read and remembered and spread around and re-interpreted and generally enters into mainstream pop culture, then copyright is not so good.

We have numerous examples of writers, once well known and respected and enjoyed by thousands if not millions of readers, virtually vanishing from the public consciousness because their estates:

  • don’t know what to do with their creations
  • don’t care to find out what to do
  • are actively embarrassed by what was written
  • have unrealistic ideas about what the material is worth
  • simply don’t know what material exists, much less who owns what rights
  • any combination thereof

People who know and enjoy the material and wish to share it with others are stymied because until it enters the public domain, there is no safe way to publish or distribute the works.

People inspired by a work, say the way Charles Gounod was inspired by William Shakespeare who in turn was inspired by Ovid, can not use that work to create new material.[2]

The result is a stifling of the literary landscape, a silencing of voices that, despite being from previous generations, still offer much to say to modern audiences.

The previous US copyright term -- 56 years total -- was sufficient for exploitation by the creator. A successful work could see several profitable print iterations, in multiple formats and languages, and more importantly, spread the writer’s reputation, thus generating more interest in their other work.

At the end of that period the work could be freely shared and adapted. A writer’s loss of potential income was offset by their value as a cultural touchstone; Edgar Rice Burroughs is no less a cultural influencer from his works falling into the public domain than not.

Let’s look at our hypothetical 25 year old author; if she passes away at age 75, by old copyright law her estate would still enjoy control of her material for another 6 years.

But let’s say her work, despite its quality, does not remain a perennial best seller. Rather, it falls to the backlist and as such disappears from view because there is not enough potential income to justify promoting it.

As such, after her death and despite the best intentions of her estate, the work remains out of print for six years.

After that, enthusiasts for her work (fans, scholars, teachers) would be free to share it with another generation.

Not being limited to commercial publishing, they could circulate the work freely (if digitally) or at minimum cost (hard copy), thus introducing another generation of readers and fans to the material.

This is exactly how a lot of authors who were in danger of vanishing from the literary realm found themselves becoming overlooked masters of their craft by later generations.

Once the profit motive was removed, their resurgence in popularity was driven purely by enthusiasm for the material, not a major corporation’s bottom line.

Now, it’s fair to say this presumably posthumous rediscovery is moot to the now deceased author.[3]

But it’s also fair to say that often times this is their only chance at literary immortality.

You see, if the generation that knew them and enjoyed them can’t pass that torch along to the next generation of readers and fans…

…then that torch may sputter and die.

An additional half century may not seem like much, but that’s time enough for three generations to come on the scene and be completely ignorant of the value of a pre-existing work. Not only does the work lose its potential influence, but the works that would have been inspired and derived from it are lost as well.

The currently insanely long copyright terms are not for the benefit of individual human creators; rather they are so corporations can exert a bottleneck that simultaneously crowds new creator-owned material out of the market while at the same time forcing customers to select from a limited range of corporate-owned options in direct contradiction to what our constitution established copyright for![4]

animated mono mickey wink

[1]  And threatening to get longer.

[2]  At least without fear of having the bejeebers sued out of them.

[3]  Or rather, almost always deceased; Irving Berlin lived to see several of his earliest hits slip into the public domain. He did not miss any meals because people could play “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine” without sending him royalties.

[4]  There is a solution to the tension between corporate control and individual copyrights, and that is to let the corporations continue to hold specific trademarks while allowing the public at large the right to use those characters and concepts as they see fit. Thusly, the Disney corporation could continue to market the mouse as The Official Mickey Mouse while the public could use now the character’s public domain stories and images as they saw fit. All this would entail would be a periodic minor redesign of characters as they already do anyway to accommodate changing public tastes. The brand would not be damaged because audiences would know that without the official seal, any Mickey Mouse product would just not be “official”.


Bill Clinton in 2016

The Words Of The Prophets...