Writing is a strange career. You spend countless hours pouring your soul on the page for no promise of pay, no benefits, and no guarantee anyone will even publish you. Then you go online and find out people think you have it too damn good. That was the recent situation when—as part of the controversy over the Dr. Seuss estate’s decision to cease publication of six largely obscure titles with offensive content—former Vox writer Matthew Yglesias tweeted that “books that are 30 years old should be in the public domain.”
Many agreed with Yglesias and wanted to go further. The top reply suggested “even 15 or 20” years would be sufficient, while others said maybe that was too much. After all, they argued, it’s not like you pay dentists or bakers for work they did years ago!
The debate was a perfect internet storm, in that it made everyone mad, was filled with bad faith arguments, and was entirely pointless. Copyright is not about to drop to 30 years, much less five. Thanks to the 1886 Berne Convention and the author advocacy of Victor Hugo, the global standard is a minimum of life plus 50. (Contrary to popular belief, this standard was set long before Mickey Mouse, though Disney did successfully lobby for an extension in the ’90s.) Still, the kerfuffle highlighted some common misunderstandings about both how authors’ careers and copyright work.
Being a novelist or poet is not like being a baker, dentist, lawyer, or any job that pays wages for services rendered. We give up wages and security in order to get copyright: the right to control the art we create and—if we are very lucky—parlay that intellectual property into some (typically modest amount of) money.
If we must think in business terms, being an author is like being an entrepreneur. Writers have ideas and work for themselves to make those ideas a reality. We build a brand. We do countless hours of unpaid work in the hopes that one day, down the road, it will pay off... or at least get us on a few panels at AWP. It doesn’t work out for most of us, as internet commentators were happy to point out—but that’s true of many industries. The vast majority of restaurants fail within a few years, yet no one claims anyone should be able to walk into a successful restaurant and use the kitchen for free.
When it does work out, it takes time—lots of time: years to write, years to establish a readership, and often years to catch a lucky break. Success tends to come late for authors. If you don’t believe me, go turn on Netflix and watch its recent hits Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit, based on decades-old novels by Julia Quinn and the late Walter Tevis, respectively.
Let’s say an author doesn’t ever succeed and spends their life crying over their MacBook. Well, so what? Why shouldn’t they still control their creations? This is what copyright is really about: who gets control. It’s a question that goes beyond money. Almost every author of color has a story about Hollywood wanting to adapt their work but whitewash the characters. Without copyright, Hollywood could do so freely. The editor who wants to rewrite a book’s ending or change the author’s vision? Without copyright, they could.
It’s worth emphasizing that copyright only gives authors the right to their specific works, not to general ideas. If you want to write about a magical boy in wizard school, you can do so today as long as you don’t call him Harry Potter. No one can copyright a concept like “boy at wizard school”—and good thing for Rowling, since Ursula K. Le Guin got there first with 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
Every year, countless copycats, homages, and parodies are published—to say nothing of the fan fictions and fan adaptations that populate the web for free. In addition, plenty of authors come up with similar ideas independently of one another. Unlike physical property, intellectual property can be unlimited. There are many, many more books published each year than anyone could ever read. Copyrighting books doesn’t “stifle creativity” or lock away ideas, it merely offers authors (and a generation or two of descendants) some measure of control and perhaps a little cash.
Are there legitimate problems that copyright critics bring up? Yes, but most of them can be better solved another way than shrinking copyright protections. Want more public access to free books? Advocate for library funding. Worried about school budgets? Advocate for better education funding. Want to sell Superman and Mickey Mouse products? Fight for trademark reform (which is stricter than copyright and indefinite) or changes to corporate ownership.
But don’t ask individual authors to give up copyright. It’s really the only thing we have.
Lincoln Michel is the author of 'The Body Scout' and can be found online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.