Thursday, October 07, 2010

Public Domain

Cory Doctorow writes about public domain works in the latest issue of LOCUS:

Proprietary Interest

While I have reservations about some of Doctorow's opinions on copyright, I agree with this essay. Extending copyright protection too far leads to diminishing returns. For lesser-known authors, particularly, keeping works in copyright too long after the author's death doesn't protect the creator so much as doom the work to oblivion. I'm viewing the issue from the perspective of an editor, my first two books having been paperback anthologies (CURSE OF THE UNDEAD and DEMON LOVERS AND STRANGE SEDUCTIONS). In my opinion, the main purpose of reprint anthologies is to preserve in more permanent form worthy pieces of fiction that would otherwise languish in the obscurity of old periodicals or out-of-print story collections. Presently, print copyrights extend to 75 years after the author's death. If the editor can't determine when the author of an older story died, much less track down the current copyright owner, that story can't be reprinted. New readers who might enjoy it can never see it. Fortunately, in almost all cases a work that lapsed into the public domain before the 1978 accord took effect (before that, the maximum length of copyright in the U.S. was 56 years) can't be re-copyrighted, so an editor or publisher is safe in reproducing a story or book dated before about 1920. For materials published after that, they have to start worrying.

One positive effect of the Google digitizing project for "orphaned works": Books that might otherwise never have been seen or heard from again will become available to new readers.

If I'd been writing the law, I would have decreed that the copyright clock starts ticking on publication—a date much easier to determine—rather than depending upon the accidental and contingent factor of the author's death date. Make copyright last a century from publication date, if you must; then the longest-lived author won't outlive his or her own rights in the work.

Doctorow doesn't address this problem specifically but does point out other aspects of the public domain system I hadn't thought of.

The site he mentions, Vintage Ads, is fun to browse:

Vintage Ads

And here's their sister site, which displays hundreds of covers of pulp magazines and comics:

Cover Browser

The fact that copyright doesn't last forever makes possible books such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, though some readers may consider this not necessarily a Good Thing. More unambiguously positive are books like DRACULA variations and sequels such as Fred Saberhagen's delightful THE DRACULA TAPE and Barbara Hambly's novel about Renfield, or Sherlock Holmes pastiches such as THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION. I wouldn't want to have missed those creations, and as long as copyright stays in effect, such "derivative works" can't be professionally published. As a fiction writer, I heartily support fair recompense to authors and the vigorous banning of piracy, but as a reader (and former editor) I wouldn't want to see those rights extended in perpetuity.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Interested parties are encouraged to submit comments on revisions to copyright laws and protections for copyright owners by e-mail to

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