I was pretty sure that nobody gave a stuff about copyright, but my last blog 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 of Syrup.”
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 public domain.
“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 yourself!”
Exactly. 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 Cory Doctorow 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 work.) If, on the other hand, he’s already well-known… well, he probably isn’t starving.
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 next blog.