Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The joys of copyright

The issue of copyright has been discussed here from time to time. For example, in February I mentioned that, even in 1841, Macaulay had wisely argued to the House of Commons that extending the term of copyright much beyond an author's lifetime was not an idea which was in the public interest.

The House of Commons then agreed with him, but later legislative bodies, in Europe and the USA, have taken a different view. And if politicians go on taking funds from companies which have a vested interest in making copyright last for ever, then we can expect that the term of copyright will steadily be increased further and further. This will greatly benefit the media companies' shareholders, and those who control writers' estates, but it won't do much for anyone else.

I am reminded of all this by a post by Michael Schaub on Bookslut. James Joyce died in 1941, but, thanks to the politicians of this world, his work is still in copyright. The Joyce estate is now controlled by one Stephen Joyce (the great man's grandson), and Stephen Joyce is, in his small way, also famous. The following story shows why.

An academic who has devoted years of his life to studying the work of James Joyce, and is a recognised expert in the field, recently applied to Stephen Joyce for permission to quote from Ulysses. Stephen demanded a fee of $1.5 million, and told the academic: 'You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you’ll never quote a Joyce text again.' The full story is contained in an article in the New Yorker.

What a charming fellow Stephen is. And how clearly this incident demonstrates that the public interest in literature is best served by extending the term of copyright steadily towards infinity.


Susan Hill said...

I have long felt that copyright should extend ten years after the death of the author..which means that any surviving spouse or dependent would benefit from any on-going earnings but that would then be that, straight into the public domain. I can see absolutely no reason why heirs, and especially distant ones, should live free on someone else for 70 years after that someone else`s death. I know the family of one now dead high-earning author who have expoited their father`s work and lived off it, doing nothing themselves, for 40 years, and now it is the turn of the grandchildren. Not character forming.
50 years was bad enough, but when we came in life with the EU and it was 70 years after the author`s death, it became immoral.

GC said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
GC said...

On the surface, it is easy to agree with you.

However, as a writer myself, most of my life has been spent immersed in the struggle to keep my chin above the financial black water-line, and thereby my family as well.

While I agree that struggle builds character, and most great artists are all too often formed by the dramatic, unusual, and tragic events of their lives, there are basic nature and nurture issues at work that cannot be ignored. The hardships of life often break people who do not possess the raw processing power to turn these events into art. Kafka illustrated, perhaps more then anyone, the fact that even bourgeois pencil-pushers can labor away in the empty spaces of an oppressive life to craft a potentially immortal work.

If my descendants ever benefit from my efforts, I believe I would be doing the traits that I would inevitably leave behind a great service by bestowing a life of leisure and contemplation, separated nicely from the cruel global corporate-fascist pandemic that is currently sweeping the world. And if these descendants get drunk, crash and burn, or behave badly in public, it is my prediction they would do more for the creative aims of life then worrying about the bills.



GC said...

just found this:,,1796841,00.html

Jon said...

Nobody has yet satisfactorily explained to me why a writer's copyright should be any longer than an inventor's patent - currently around seven to fourteen years. As far as I can see all the arguments (and non-arguments) for one apply in exactly the same way to the other. Ninety-nine year patents, anyone? And if not, why not?


Anonymous said...

Jon's question is simply answered. Patents deal with (typically) chemical or industrial processes where there are few good solutions to a particular problem. The discoverer of such a solution is rewarded, but for a relatively short period - because a long-lasting patent would be a significant cost to others.

By contrast, copyright deals (generally) with artistic works of which the existence of one does not affect the ability of other authors to produce an original work based on the same theme. Want to make a cartoon about a mouse? No problem, just don't clone Mickey. Even if Hamlet had been written yesterday, your play about a young man dithering about revenge on his usurping uncle would not be compromised.

Thus, copyright could arguably run forever without severely ill consequences. In the case of literature, copyrighted works are read much more than the 'classics' - indicating that the value to the public of literary works is largely generated during the copyright period, and that the residual benefits of having works in the public domain are vastly over-stated by anti-copyright activists.

Of course copyright is resented by those in businesses that might be considered parasitic on the work of artists - academics, those who attempt to make 'art' by sensational adaptations of the work of genuine artists, etc. It is not at all clear to me that the cause of literary and other art would be served by modifying copyright law in their interests.

GC said...

Well said Gerry and a strong point to be sure.