Public Works

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law has an interesting article about why there are no authors/books entering the public domain this year in the United States. In short:

Once again, we will have nothing to celebrate this January 1st. Not a single published work is entering the public domain this year. Or next year, or the year after that. In fact, in the United States, no publication will enter the public domain until 2019….When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in most of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. And we’ve changed the law so that every creative work is automatically copyrighted, even if the author does nothing. What do these laws mean to you? As you can read in our analysis here, they impose great (and in many cases entirely unnecessary) costs on creativity, on libraries and archives, on education and on scholarship. More broadly, they impose costs on our entire collective culture.”

The idea isn’t to destroy copyright entirely; that would be detrimental to working authors. But why shouldn’t Virginia Woolf’s works be available this year, or Rebel Without a Cause? If artistic works such as these could be more easily used in schools and libraries and in other works of art, isn’t that a good thing? I’d be okay with waiting until an artist/author/copyright owner is dead, but 70 years after? There needs to be some compromise.

Copy, Paste

This New York Times article is more based in visual art than literature, but it’s a fascinating look at what’s going on with copyright issues. One quote that struck me:

“For the generation that I spend my days with, there’s not even any ideological baggage that comes along with appropriation anymore,” said Stephen Frailey, an artist whose work has used appropriation and who runs the undergraduate photography program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “They feel that once an image goes into a shared digital space, it’s just there for them to change, to elaborate on, to add to, to improve, to do whatever they want with it. They don’t see this as a subversive act. They see the Internet as a collaborative community and everything on it as raw material.”

I see a lot of truth in that. Images get passed around sites like Pinterest or Tumblr, maybe edited, maybe without a link to the source material. I’m sure that’s frustrating to artists (you want to be credited for your work) but a lot of times things are passed around because people enjoy them and are inspired by them in some way. If we cut off the possibility of sharing, does that hinder potential creativity? And what can artists do with these images? What kind of value needs to be added to a image for it to be new and fresh in some way, so the second artist has made it his/her own? Lawyer Daniel Brooks argues:

It can’t just be random, that he ‘liked it,’ because there’s no practical boundary to that.”

It’s a hard look at what the design and creation process actually is. Is it wrong for an artist to include something because he “likes” it or because he finds that it adds an aesthetic value to his work without it necessarily commenting on the original? Part of me wants to allow that kind of creation process, but another agrees with Brooks–it’s a slipper slope for the people who are creating these images in the first place.

The whole article is worth checking out. I’m very curious to see how copyright law will address these issues, but I don’t think anything will be cleared up anytime soon.

The E-Clause

The big news in publishing now is how to deal with e-readers. Along with that comes questions regarding publishing contracts, some of which are decades old. I’m guessing that’s the reason HarperCollins is suing Open Road Integrated Media over the latter’s e-book edition of Jean Craighead George’s children’s book classic Julie of the Wolves. HarperCollins originally published the book in 1972 ,and Open Road (founded by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman) came out with its e-book edition in October.

Although Open Road says they were granted rights by author George, HarperCollins counters:

Our contract with Jean Craighead George, the author of Julie of the Wolves, grants us the exclusive digital rights to the book, and Open Road’s e-book edition violates our rights. We intend to take all appropriate steps to protect our exclusive rights under copyright against infringement, in this case and in any instances that might occur in the future.”

It sounds like someone–the author, the agent, one of the publishers–really dropped the ball on this one, and I don’t think this will be a rare lawsuit in the years to come. Publishing contracts can be hard enough to understand without trying to update each one with regard to new technology. I’m curious to see how this will pan out.