Just when those of us in the book business had heard about all we thought there was to hear about the digitization of books and the debate about who should control access to them (9,000,000+ articles about Google in PW and elsewhere), the New York Times Magazine weighed in last week with "Scan This Book," a manifesto in which Wired contributor Kevin Kelly argues in favor of a universal, free digital library that would be available to everyone, even "elderly people in Peru." To those of us who've been following this situation, many of his arguments and thoughts were clear and familiar.
But there was one section that gave me pause. While the "original purpose [of copyright]," Kelly writes, was "as an incentive to keep [a] creator working"—a constitutional guarantee—the 1998 congressional extension of copyright "now exist[s] primarily to protect a threatened business model." By which he means, of course, the publishers and authors who can continue, for several generations, to benefit from their work. Books, he implies, should always or at least not too long after their creation, become public commodities—in the public domain—so that the whole world can share them at no cost.
Never mind that Kelly sidesteps the whole question of who would control, maintain and pay for this library—the United Nations? the Saudis? Rupert Murdoch?—and who would profit therefrom; the part that worried me was the implication that authors should be granted copyright for a shorter, not longer, period of time in order to make this all possible. (In 1998, Congress voted for new copyrights to last 70 years beyond the life of the creator; existing copyrights were extended until 2019, according to Kelly.) Such a suggestion, frankly, disavows the amount of work—the amount of time!—it actually takes to create a book, not to mention the lack of financial reward that comes, even in this era of inflated advances, during that sometimes lifetime-long process. Why shouldn't generations of Joyces or Morrisons or, more pointedly, Richard Yateses, benefit from the work that the authors scraped by to produce? Believing that your book could become a source of enlightenment for generations is a great thing, of course. Knowing that it might provide some comfort for your own great-great-grandchildren ain't such a bad incentive either. And while no one in his right mind sets out to become a writer for the money, limiting copyright to the author's lifetime seems the opposite of an incentive, say, to the 70-year-old who's finally ready to buckle down and write his novel.
Yes, it's hard to keep track of copyright, especially when publishers (who, essentially, "lease" copyright from the author) disappear and morph and merge, as they do.
And yes, Kelly's tale of a failed attempt to track down the copyright of an obscure once-Random House title was harrowing and hilarious—and oh-so-true. But as books become digital files that require few warehouse fees, and the whole notion of "out of print" becomes moot, copyright should be similarly simplified: it should rest with the author, or his descendants, for way longer than they both shall live. It doesn't seem kosher that writers, of all people, should give up their proprietary rights so that Kelly's new business model might flourish.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us at www.publishersweekly.com/saranelson