I received the copyedited manuscript of Company.
This means someone at Doubleday has gone through it with a red pencil
and pointed out everything I did wrong: spelling, grammar, continuity,
the fact that someone takes their sunglasses off twice without
putting them back on in between, and so forth.
This is intimidating enough, but on top of that they
do it using arcane symbols that would look more at home if Gandalf
was reading them off a scroll.
Fortunately I know a little Elvish, so I can usually work out
what they’re saying. And they’re mostly right, so I tend to leave their
But if I want, I can overrule them, with the awesome power of STET.
“Stet,” I discovered while
editing my first novel, means, “Put everything back
just the way I had it.” (Accompanied, one suspects, by the subtext:
“Idiot!”) How good is that?
When I discovered this word, it was like a gnawing, hollow place in my
heart had finally been filled. Looking back, I can’t work out how I ever
made it through a day without it. “Max, I tidied up your desk for you.”
“No! Stet! STET, dammit!”
Copyediting also reminds you just how archaic the publishing process
is. When I write a novel, I use
a word processor,
nice, proportional fonts, curly/smart quotes, etc, so it looks more or
less like the final book. But for submission to my editor, I have to
strip all this out, double-space it, change the font to that butt-ugly
Courier, and, get this, convert the italics to
underlines. This manuscript then gets
scribbled on by various
people (that’s me in the green pencil), and finally some poor
types it all back in, thus creating a document that looks
near-identical to the one I had to start with.
You wondered why it takes 12 months for a book to get published, right?
I used to, too.
I was pretty sure that nobody gave a stuff about copyright, but my
got quite a big response, so either lots of people care about it,
or only a few do, but they all have internet access. There was much
challenging of my argument that copyright should last just ten
years, so, in the time-honored tradition of half-assed essayists
everywhere, I have decided to Q&A myself.
(And this is totally irrelevant, but I notice
it’s always more fun to write the questions than the answers. It
must be the same way evil characters are more enjoyable to write.)
“Since you think a 10-year copyright is such a good idea,
obviously in four years’ time you won’t mind if I sell my own print run
If you publish a reprint of Syrup in 2009, you won’t be
infringing my rights: you’ll be infringing Penguin Putnam’s. That’s what happens
when you sign with a publisher: you grant it the exclusive right to
sell copies. I no longer have the ability to put my novels into the
“Very convenient. When you sell your next book, then,
will you insist that your contract lasts only ten years, after which
your books enter the public domain?”
What am I, crazy? If I did that, my publisher would become confused
and frightened, I would get a lot of e-mails about “the way we always
do things”, and when it was all over I would probably be looking at either a much
smaller advance or none at all.
“Aha! Sir, you have been exposed! You say it would be a good thing
for copyright to be ten years, yet when given the option, you won’t do it
My argument is not that shorter copyright would be good for artists.
I’m pretty sure it would be bad: not terrible, but definitely worse, at least for
people like me who create (arguably) wholly original content. My argument
is that it would be good for society, and
that’s more important than what’s good for authors.
“Why, you greedy, self-centered hypocrite. You admit that you
refuse to do what’s best for society, then?”
Yes. I mean, sure, I’m nice: I recycle my glass and paper, I give
to charity, and I smile at my neighbors. But I’m not going to work for free,
or take a pay cut, just because I think society deserves to have
more of my work for less. It would be good for society for garbage-collectors
to take a pay cut, too, but I don’t think they toss and turn at
nights about the ethics of it.
When it comes to my career, I plan on doing what I think will help it best.
There is a reasonable argument that releasing your work for free helps
your career, and I partly agree with this, which is why my short stuff
is available for anyone to copy, print, and even sell. But I’m not
quite at the
level, which involves putting your entire
novel up for free download. If I thought it would be good for me, I’d
do it. But I don’t, and there’s no ethical reason why I should.
That’s why we need a change in the law: without it, artists and
companies will act in their own best interest, and generally that means grabbing
as many rights as possible and hanging onto them forever.
Incidentally, on a systemic level I think there’s something seriously
wrong with any plan that requires a lot of people to act against their
self-interest. It never works, and the people who benefit most are
usually those who don’t join in. The monster that copyright has become
can’t be killed
by a handful of authors valiantly giving up some of their income,
and nor should it be. The law has to be changed. Then everyone
can be left to pursue life, liberty, happiness, and profit in the
usual, capitalist way.
“Max, you fool. If there was a ten-year copyright, film studios would
never buy another book. They’d just wait until the copyright expired
and make their film while the author slept in gutters and juggled
kittens while begging for food.”
Studios can already
make film versions of old books without paying the author a cent,
and they’re still buying copyrighted books.
There are two reasons, I think. First, if a book-based movie
gets made for $25 million, the author pocketed maybe
$500,000. A 2% saving is not enough to get a studio worked up.
Second, public domain properties are less valuable, because there are
no exclusive rights: the studio can’t do merchandising tie-ins, or
make a spin-off TV series, or sequels… or, at least, they can’t do
so exclusively. The monopoly is what makes rights valuable, and
that’s true whether it lasts for ten years, or twenty, or a hundred.
There will still be a massive financial advantage in being the only
publisher allowed to produce the new Harry Potter book,
and the only studio allowed to make the film, even if that right expires in a decade.
“But the idea of a some sleazy publisher cranking out copies
while the author gets nothing… it disturbs me.”
Well, the author gets exposure, which is valuable if he’s unknown,
because it builds an audience that might buy his newer books.
(In fact, if the author is unknown ten years after his first book,
he may be the sleazy publisher: he may re-publish his own
If, on the other hand, he’s already well-known… well, he probably isn’t
But to me this is largely irrelevant.
I know a lot of people believe in the moral right of an artist to control
his or her work, but I don’t. If you invent the telephone, you get
a twenty-year monopoly; I don’t see what’s so extra-special about Mickey
Mouse that deserves an additional century. Besides, if we’re designing
a system to encourage the production of creative works, how
happy or rich particular individuals within that system get is of no
consequence: what’s important is how well the system works.
“I’ve spent ten years trying to flog my novel to publishers.
Under your half-baked scheme, it would have no copyright left!”
I’m pretty sure that the copyright clock starts ticking on the first
publication of a work, not on the date of its creation. Also, if
you substantially revise a work, you get all-new copyright.
Okay, that’s enough on copyright, I promise. We return to the real world
Last night I was re-reading that Bible of
Hollywood screenwriting, William Goldman’s
Adventures in the Screen Trade,
when I came across this:
(This) was, ultimately, responsible for the existence of Hollywood.
All the major studios paid a fee to Thomas Edison for the right to make
movies: The motion picture was his invention and he had to be reimbursed
for each and every film.
But there was such a need for material that pirate companies, which did
not pay the fee, sprang up. The major studios hired detectives to stop
this practice, driving many of the pirates as far from the New York area
as possible. Sure, Hollywood had all that great shooting weather. But
more than that, being three thousand miles west made it easier to steal.
This morning, I saw
article on how the British government is planning to extend
copyright protection from 50 to 100 years. This would bring it
more or less in line with the US, which grants copyright until 70 - 95 years
after the author’s death—a period extended in 1998 after lobbying from
media companies, primarily Disney.
I’m a writer and earn my entire living from copyright, but this
is nuts. Copyright has become a corrupt, bastardized version of itself.
Rather than serving as a way to encourage creative works, today it’s a
method of fencing off ideas and blocking creativity. And some of the companies
pushing hardest for new intellectual property laws are the same ones
that owe their existence to breaking them.
We invented copyright to encourage innovation: to make it
worthwhile for people to create their own artistic works, rather than
copy and sell someone else’s. The aim is not to bequeath eternal rights
to an idea, or to make artists fabulously wealthy; it’s to provide society
with new books, films, songs, and other art. Copyright provides
incentive, but the incentive itself is not the point of the law: the point
is to encourage creative behavior.
Having a few years of copyright protection is a good incentive. But
a hundred years? Or seventy years after my death? (If I live to 80,
it will become legal to print your own copy of Jennifer Government
in 2123.) There’s no additional incentive in that. There is nobody,
and no company, thinking,
“Well, this is a good song, but if I only get to keep all the money it makes
for the next 50 years… nah, not worth developing it.”
Copyright extensions, of the kind popping up
nothing to do with encouraging
more creative work, and everything to do with protecting the revenue streams
of media companies that, a few generations ago, had an executive
smart enough to sniff out a popular hit.
It’s a grab for cash at the public’s expense.
The fact that there is any posthumous copyright protection at all
proves that the law is intended to benefit people who are not
the original creator: that is, heirs and corporations. The fact that
copyright extensions retroactively apply to already-created
works proves they’re not meant to encourage innovation. The only
reason copyright extension laws keep getting passed is because the people
and companies that became fabulously rich through someone else’s idea are
using that wealth to lobby government for more of it.
I’d make copyright a flat ten years.
You come up with a novel, a song, a movie, whatever: you have ten years
to make a buck out of it. After that, anyone can make copies, or create
spin-offs, or produce the movie version, or whatever. Now that
would be an incentive. You’d see all kinds of new art,
both during the copyright period, as artists rush to make the most
of their creation, and after, when everybody else can build on
what they’ve done and make something new. You’d see much cheaper versions of
books and movies that were a decade old. You wouldn’t have
the descendants of some writer refusing to allow new media featuring
the Daleks, or Tintin, or whatever. And artists with massive hits would be
merely rich, not super-rich.
A century-long copyright (in the UK), or a lifetime plus seventy years
(in the US)
means books, songs, and films created before you were born will still be
locked up when you die. During your life, you will see no new versions, no
reworkings, reinterpretations, remixes, or indeed any copies at all,
unless they are approved by whoever happened to inherit the original
artist’s estate, or whichever company bought it.
Media companies are quick to throw around the word “thief” whenever a teenager
burns a CD or shares a file over the internet. But this is
theft, too, when an artist’s work is kept away from the public for a
century. Ten years is incentive. A hundred years is gluttony.
Speaking of covers (no word on what the new Company looks like
yet), apparently the
version of Jennifer Government
is soon to hit the shelves, and they’ve tweaked the design.
translates as something like, “Me, Inc.”, which I am hoping sounds much
less lame in the original Portuguese. They also made
look like a Windows XP error dialog box, although I don’t know why.
And if you squint, you can see business suit-clad legs behind it.
Update: Apparently a better translation is “U.S., Inc.”
That makes more sense.