Jonathan Lethem on copyright

….few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.*

This has been an oft-raised topic. Over and over, we return to this. The “information wants to be free” vs. the right of the author to profit by their creation. It’s become an intellectual war. Just yesterday, I was conversing with a client who has been getting repeated emails from her fans because a book recently released by another author has a number of concepts and structures in common with a book my client wrote and published years ago. Her fans are concerned that this person is stealing from her. Having read about 1/2 of the book in question, I concluded it was influenced by and inspired by the previous book most certainly. I would call it an homage, though, not an infringement. Many of the concepts cited by the fans are part and parcel to our cultural and artistic melting pot. How can we divide those and say they are only owned by one person? And how can art exist in a solitary space? Isn’t it a conversation between artists speaking with each other and speaking to the world?

Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own—artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. In the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. “Real isn’t how you are made. . . . It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”*

And, yet, I make my living by helping authors get published and therefore buying heavily into this system of the ownership of ideas, or rather the ownership of the expression of those ideas. How can I say what I say above, and also find Jonthan Lethem’s article so compelling? Isn’t there an inherent conflict there? I guess I agree with good ol’ Thomas Jefferson. Copyright is a necessary evil. Because we need to provide an incentive for the creators to create and not just toil at the 9-5 jobs and never have the time or the energy. Gone are the days when a noble or well-to-do merchant would sponsor an artist and keep them from not-quite-starving in their garrett as they communed with their muse (and then take credit for the creation in their cultural salon or gentlemen’s club). Now we must rely on the public to do the same and on corporations to provide the avenue for the public to do so.

One does wonder, though…. will Mickey Mouse ever be in the public domain?

In any case, go read the whole article. The more people understand copyright (because it seems so many don’t, even those who are attempting to use it to their advantage), the better off the artistic world will be.

*Italic sections are quotes from the Lethem article

23 responses to “Jonathan Lethem on copyright

  1. Your client’s fan’s reactions remind me of my reactions reading Eragon by Christopher Paolini. I could tell he’d read Lord of the Rings, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and probably several other fantasy standards because of how he incorporated them, and yet he’s hailed as this new and original author.
    Thanks for the topic. It has given me much to think about!

  2. Even if “Steamboat Willie” were to go public domain, Mickey Mouse would still be a trademark of the Disney corporation. And that’ll go on forever. (But the answer to your question is probably no.)
    I think that’s why people get so annoyed about copryight. Because it’s actually not that restrictive. There’s fair use and parody and special allowances for scholarly discussion. It’s just that now a copyright will routinely last well over a hundred years, which is past the point of relevence for most books, so by the time they expire no one wants them anymore.
    I always thought the 28 years with the option to renew for another 28 (even though 28 is a bizarre and arbitrary number) was less frightening.

  3. To what extent to authors benefit from their own creative genius?
    Certainly, 70 year post-mortem copyright benefits the publishing -companies- moreso than the authors, yes?
    Is this in the public good? Does it serve the interests of the Authors?
    If an author writes as much for posterity as personal wealth, doesn’t the present state of affairs (where works can have no clear author, but attempts to bring them into the public domain en mass are still litigated against) threaten this end?
    I believe you can be a champion of author’s vested interests, financial and otherwise, and still support a different paradigm of intellectual paradigm. It is to your credit that you do– otherwise, you’re sweeping back the tide with a broom against the zeitgeist.

    • Certainly, 70 year post-mortem copyright benefits the publishing -companies- moreso than the authors, yes?
      Is this in the public good? Does it serve the interests of the Authors?

      Hrmmm. But then, are not the Authors allowed – like every other citizen – to leave an estate to their heirs? If we limit one sort of inheritence, what is the equitable limit on, say, real estate?

      • I was never under the impression that authors have ever been paid very well, with perhaps a few rare exceptions. How many books are kept in print 10, 20, 30 years later? (But they are still under copyright…)

        • So you’re basing your argument on the eventual huge payoff? Should stock certificates not be inheritable, then? I mean, who knows when somehing you bought for pennies on the dollar will suddenly be worth something, right?
          (from a quick glimpse at bestseller lists form the 1950’s through the 1970’s)
          Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl
          The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk
          East of Eden, John Steinbeck
          To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
          The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré
          You Only Live Twice, Ian Fleming (all the Bond books, in fact)
          Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
          The Godfather, Mario Puzo
          The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
          The Promise, Chaim Potok
          The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
          Rabbit Redux, John Updike
          Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach
          The Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart
          Watership Down, Richard Adams
          Roots, Alex Haley
          The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson
          Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
          The Dead Zone, Stephen King
          Plus, of course, the movie rights, some of which sale $$ goes to the copyright holder…

          • You’ve presented a hand-picked list of titles of works published between 1950 and 1970– how many books were published in that time? How many of those books are presently out of print?
            Suppose there was no legal way for me to acquire a copy of a book published in 1950 which went out of print. Provided I do not profit from downloading it, nor does the uploader, isn’t in the public good that I should be able to obtain it? Might not that be considered free advertising, should that author have other works which -are- still in print?

            • All of those books, according to my quick research, are still in print. That’s why I listed them. How many books are published in a year? A lot. How does that apply to the original discussion?
              And again, I ask – are you saying that it protection is due only to those who make money up front, and not those who create/invest in the hopes of a long-term return? And if so, how long is that long-term allowed for? And why limit it only to creative works?
              I’m not saying that you’re wrong, but I am asking you to think through your position and determine the limits you’re comfortable with – and why.

              • I’m not saying that you’re wrong, but I am asking you to think through your position and determine the limits you’re comfortable with – and why.
                I haven’t (explicitly) taken a position… I’ve presented a succession of (pseudo)-rhetorical questions.

            • This is the crux of the argument – where is the line between the public good (as you call it) and the wishes of the author? (Leaving aside the corporate gain variable.) I know of one notable case where the author did not want sequels authorized after their death, but the family did so anyway which completely horrified the fans. Of course, one can go the other route too. What if George R. R. Martin had never released his latest book but I had a copy of the manuscript? Would I be required to release it for public good? And just to play Devil’s Advocate…. what of these pieces of art that are collected by someone and hung in halls never to be seen by any others? Could your argument be extended to say that it’s in the interests of public good for it to be displayed in a museum rather than hidden away in a miserly fashion? And therefore even the buyer does not have a right to control what they have rightfully purchased?
              (Why does any argument about copyright always seem to end up landing in commercial vs. socialist territory?)

              • Because all discussions of property end up in commercial vs. socialist territory. 🙂

                • Isn’t it the truth…

                  • I see it more of a question of using the legal system to defend an outdated business model amidst technological and social change, while attempting to preserve the spirit of those same laws.
                    I am questioning what can be construed as theft, damages, or harm.
                    Clearly it trends towards socialistic at times, but even within a capitalist conceit, I think there are genuine questions of what is in the best interests of author, agent, audience, and industry.

                    • I see it more of a question of using the legal system to defend an outdated business model amidst technological and social change, while attempting to preserve the spirit of those same laws.
                      The problem then becomes (and this is the one I get the most stuck on argument-wise)…. that we need a new business model and it seems most of those I have heard proposed are still too flawed.

                    • Well, you are better equipped than I to suggest which actions of publishers are motivated by ideology rather than profit motives, but I imagine there is a lot of wasteful spinning of wheels at the edges.
                      The RIAA is a well-publicized case of an industry gnashing its teeth at the ‘gall’ of its customers, then spending a lot of money to fuel putative lawsuits. I tend to see publishers assaults on google and the like in the same light.

  4. I think it’s sweet that…
    …the readers are so enthralled by her novels that they feel offended on her behalf.
    Thanks for the lesson on copyright.
    Kimber An

  5. limits on copyright
    I think most authors I know would be willing to severely limit the LENGTH of copyright in exchange for receiving royalties on the sales of used books for, say, two or three years. I agree that life + 70 mainly benefits corporations and heirs and doesn’t honor the original premise of copyright, which is to allow creators to make enough money to encourage continued creation. Interesting topic!
    –Brenda 🙂

  6. Ok, so a question based on something that was being discussed on another list – is obtaining a copyright the sign of a “rank amateur”?

    • I have heard it called such. For my part, it isn’t relevant to considering a submission. As I understand copyright registration (and I am not a lawyer so there are nuances beyond me), it isn’t necessary to obtain it to protect your work during the submission process. And most publishing companies are required contractually to register for copyright on behalf of the author.

      • And it was mentioned that this was a reason that an agent or publisher might reject the work. I disagreed. I can see not flashing the copyright sign in the editors/agents/publishers face, but just getting one doesn’t soom like such a big deal in the no-no department. 🙂

  7. The whole homage thing is why I’m infuriated by the pulling of Kaavya Viswanathan’s book. I didn’t get a chance to read the book, but what clips I did read, and what explanations I saw, I’m pretty sure she got railroaded by the media. Most of the so-called “plaigerized” clips I saw in the media, I wouldn’t have even come close to calling a student on. The scenes had different purposes, just similar themes. *grrr* That’s a situation of the media and some over-enthusiastic (idiotic) creative police running amok and destroying something that, while derivitive, was not plaigerism.
    I do believe the gal when she said that she had internalized the style instead of copying the scenes. If Kaavya Viswanathan is as smart IQ-wise as she appears to be (Harvard!), then it’s actually very easy to pick up those kinds of traits and echo them back.
    *grrrr* Sometimes, the creative police have a point, but this one, they’re wrong, and Kaavya Viswanathan ended up the loser. *shakes head in disgust*

  8. It is a really interesting topic and just like he said, it’s complicated. As a writer, I want to be abe to make a living off teh words I right, and so highly value copyright.
    But there is also another part of me that recognises the value of ‘borrowing’ from other works as a way to keep creativity alive. Borrowing from myths and fairy tales inspires a lot of my writing, and a good fairy tale can impire me to write a similar story, which is still my own, but if I had not borrowed, the story would not exist.
    It also seems to me that letting something fall into the public domain can keep a work alive. Mickey Mouse, for example, could be revamped in new and exciting ways, if he was ever allowed to be public domain. Reusing and reinterpreting is a way of honoring, and keeping it in the public space, so it is not forgotten.

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