23 February 2005

Intellectual Propriety

So, copyright. Mm.

I am, of course, broadly in favour. This is to be expected, given that I make money from having my writing published: I naturally don't want other people pretending to have written what I've written myself, or passing off my concepts and characters as their own.

On the other hand, I'm not fanatical about it. I do, after all, write for shared-universe series; and the couple (so far) of times that other writers have written stuff which draws on my concepts for their own creative work have made me feel all warm and glowy inside. I imagine I'd get a similar feeling from being quoted (provided it wasn't, you know, whole paragraphs or chapters).

All of which means I have conflicting feelings about the cheque for £67.50 which I recently sent off to the agents of H.G. Wells' literary estate, in return for their permission to reproduce 100-odd words from The Time Machine. I am, I think, pretty much rock-solid behind the idea that a writer should keep control of the things that he or she has written during his or her lifetime. That seems only fair and reasonable, and the fact that in practice I might be prepared to be quite laid-back about this doesn't mean that other writers should have to be.

However, as things stand, works remain in copyright in the U.K. for 70 years after the death of their author, by which time it might be argued that it isn't going to do the writer in question an awful lot of good.

(I remember when this duration was upped from 50 to 70 years, in 1996. Controversially, and to the severe detriment of a number of academic publishers, the new law was made retrospective, so that the publishers of, for instance, critical editions of the works of James Joyce (d. 1941) found themselves suddenly forced to withdraw them or face substantial fees.)

Now, H.G. Wells died in 1946, meaning that his works won't come out of copyright until 2016. However, he was 80 years old at the time of his death, and The Time Machine was published in 1896 when he was 30 -- meaning that (barring another change in the law) it will have remained in copyright for 120 years before it enters the public domain.

An even more extreme example is George Bernard Shaw's early novel Cashel Byron's Profession -- published in 1886 when Shaw was 30, and remaining in copyright until 2020 thanks to Shaw's extreme longevity (1856-1950). That's 134 years, very nearly twice the nominal 70-year limit. Compare this with, to take a fairly random example, Portraits in Miniature and Other Essays (1931) by Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), which was published fully 45 years later, but is already up for grabs, having remained in copyright for only 71 years. [Addendum: Actually, I've just realised, only 57, as it would have initially fallen out of copyright in 1982 and only had it restored with the change to the law in 1996.]

All of which seems anomalous to me, to be honest. Franz Kafka (1883-1924, and therefore out of copyright) wanted his unpublished manuscripts (which, at the time, was all of them) burnt after his death: it was only because his most trusted friend refused to carry out his dying wish that we have The Trial or "Metamorphosis" at all. The cultural impoverishment that would have resulted from this suggests to me that an author does not have the moral right to control his or her works after death.

It seems to me that a far saner law would have a work remaining in copyright for 70 (or, more sensibly, something like 30) years after its first publication, or until its author's death if he or she lived longer than that. Authors would try to buck the system by producing revised and definitive editions on their deathbeds -- which is fair enough, but then the original edition would enter the public domain at the appropriate point.

Terry Pratchett (1948- ) said recently (although I can't find the quote online) that, although he loves his family very much, he doesn't see it as being particularly his job to ensure that his grandchildren are rich long after he's dead. Assuming that he has grandchildren already (and he's of an age to), if his novels were to continue to sell well under current copyright law, his descendants could be provided for down to the sixth or seventh generation. Which is frankly daft.

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