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Penguin Books, along with its seriously talented team of graphic designers, is making great play of its latest rebooting of the George Orwell franchise. Coverage from the Huffington Post to the Creative Review lauds Penguin’s brave and high-minded initiative to relaunch Orwell’s works with bold cover designs that recall the original Penguin editions—only, in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the title erased to signify censorship.

Penguin Classics’ own website states:

“In recognition of one of Britain’s greatest and most influential writers, Penguin Books, the Orwell Estate and The Orwell Prize are launching the inaugural ‘Orwell Day’ on 21st January with new editions of his most beloved books designed by David Pearson. The annual event will serve to celebrate [Orwell's] writing in all its forms and explore the profound influence he has had on the media and discourse of the modern world.”

Well … perhaps so.

Only, remember that Orwell has more recently been one of the poster boys for the global fiasco surrounding extension of creative copyright and public domain status across different jurisdictions. Nineteen Eighty-Four itself is in copyright until 2020 in the EU; until 2044 in the U.S.; but already out of copyright and available for download, absolutely free, in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and yes, even in Russia.

Remember too that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the subject of the notorious case in 2009 when Amazon remotely deleted an edition that had failed to clear U.S. rights from its e-readers.

Yes, Penguin absolutely has the right—if any publishing house has—to do itself proud on its iconic cover designs. Those designs are monuments in and of themselves, and Penguin is certainly entitled to extract from them the maximum value they can. Penguin can also take pride in its own great Sir Allen Lane tradition as a promulgator of knowledge and cultural values (though remember that the house is now in the hands of Pearson PLC, and soon to be snapped up by Random House).

But don’t forget: Penguin was also one of the last major publishers to settle with the U.S. Department of Justice over the “agency model” charges of conspiracy to raise prices on e-books. Indeed, Penguin is still defending the agency model in its statements, while agreeing to settle only in order to consummate its marriage with Random House undisturbed.

So while Penguin and its designers pat themselves on the back over their consecration of Orwell’s memory, the publisher continues to defend the principle of charging top dollar for access to his ideas—even though those same works are completely free elsewhere—and to defend a system that prosecutes those who make those ideas freely accessible, anywhere within its reach.

Yes, a situation where an e-book publisher can erase entire libraries at the press of a button following a court decision is Orwellian. Just as Orwellian—or Kafkaesque—is the global copyright term situation. Are U.S. Customs thought police going to patrol the Canadian border until 2044 to confiscate copyright-free Canadian editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four? Are they going to go after U.S.-based servers that provide access to work that is totally legal elsewhere? Are they going to push cross-border jurisdiction on the model of the U.S. tax authorities and go extraterritorial, to enforce U.S. copyright practices worldwide, at the behest of Big Media? That would be truly worthy of Oceania.

The Australian, Canadian and other archives who are making Orwell’s thought and work freely available are the only ones who are truly honouring his memory, and living up to his ideals. Penguin, meanwhile, seems blind to the Orwellian irony of what it is doing.

 
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