For fifty-five years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the only novel that Harper Lee published. It was successful enough that she simply didn’t need to publish another one. That one book, published 55 years ago, has kept her comfortable for the rest of her life. But it turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird was actually the second novel that Harper Lee wrote—and now HarperCollins is going to publish the first one, Go Set a Watchman. It is scheduled for release July 2015.
Lee explains that when she first wrote Go Set a Watchman, her editor was intrigued by childhood flashbacks of the adult character Scout in that novel, and convinced her to write another book about that character’s childhood. That book is what became To Kill a Mockingbird. The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman had been misplaced, and Lee had thought it lost for good until her lawyer rediscovered it in 2014.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been called “a fine example of how copyright is failing us all.” Blogger Mike Taylor wrote last year:
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Under the earliest US copyright law, which had a term of 14 years, it would have gone into the public domain in 1974 unless Lee took steps to renew that copyright for another 14 years — something she would have been able to do just once. That would have allowed it to stay in copyright until 1988. In other words, even had its copyright been renewed, To Kill a Mockingbird would now have been in the public domain for more than a quarter of a century.
Instead, it’s remained in copyright (and will remain so for at least another 70 years). So royalties have continued to flow. It’s perhaps largely for this reason that Harper Lee never got around to completing another book — Mockingbird became her meal-ticket for life. In short, in this case copyright law did the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it removed the incentive to create more works.
Of course, given that the manuscript had been lost and was only just rediscovered, shorter copyright terms wouldn’t have gotten it published any sooner. But they might have given Lee the incentive to write something else. Given how well her first book has lasted, who knows what other amazing works might have flowed from her pen if she had to write them to put bread on the table?
So… should we not pay writers to write so that they’ll right more? I’m confused by the point here.
Thanks for this heads up, Chris. There’s also talk online now of a huge bidding war for movie rights for this new novel, since the movie for “To Kill A Mockingbird” became a classic along with the novel, so pundits are saying the movie deal could go sky high. If she opts to sell the movie rights, that is.
Of course, there’s some question over just how much say Harper Lee actually has over any business matters. Apparently she’s in a nursing home with symptoms of senility.
UK Book Trade News Digest for February 4, 2015
Harper Lee Book Could Also Mean A ‘Mockingbird’ Movie Sequel
Shockwaves felt almost as much in Hollywood as they were in the book
Fortunately the changing market for works is driving down the ability for artists and writers to set themselves up for life the way they did in the 20th Century. For all but a very small handful of the most popular writers, fan engagement has become critical to paying the rent. This can take the form of direct support via Patreon, or simply having to ePublish more works, more frequently.
Thank you Chris for pointing out the way that copyright law has served to hinder the production of creative works.
It seems profoundly flawed, to me, to claim that Harper Lee didn’t write more because she didn’t have to financially. The impression I’ve always had was that she was so meticulous in writing and editing To Kill A Mockingbird and then so overwhelmed by its success that she felt that she could nor should not write again.
In fact, the first commenter quotes Lee saying more or less “She said what she had to say.”
Then the author of the post goes on to talk about Bill Watterson writing something after Calvin & Hobbes… Yet I know for a definite fact that Watterson is not motivated by cash, is more than content with the cash from the very tightly controlled strips, books, and highly limited merchandizing (even if copyright had been limited to 14 years or even less), that Watterson was still profoundly and deeply disturbed and hurt by the rampant violation of his copyrights despite his strict enforcement, and he would not be further motivated to do something “next” if he was financially motivated to do so, even if he had been living on the streets for decades.
Reducing the motivation to produce literature to a financial one is a big mistake. Thinking that more literary production is always better than less is a big mistake.
Furthermore, Harper Lee’s life barely changed with her literary success. She basically lives out small-town Southern life with a small circle of friends going to the local diner, preparing her own meals, etc… She probably would have easily lived out her life on Mockingbird alone even if copyright was 14 years. Gah! It really galls me to hear such flawed, pathetic, self-interested arguments abusing someone virtually above all reproach to put forth their arguments (particularly when it’s done so poorly).
Generally when producers tell consumers to “take it or leave it” that’s regarded as bad customer service, yet when artists and writers do it they are held up as some sort of shining example. At the end of the day a decision not to create or not to license makes the world worse off because consumer demand is going un-met. That’s Economics 101.
I think it’s easy to say that such and such wealthy creators would do it the same way even if they were “living on the street”, but the truth is that creators will almost always give in if it means putting food on the table.
The whole idea of the creator being able to sit back and not make things is rooted in the European idea that the arts are the realm of the wealthy aristocracy aka the “idle rich”. Copyright law as we know it today was born in Europe and was designed to implement that ideal where artists could sit back and keep their art “pure” based on a lifetime stream of mailbox income.
I reject that notion. Creative expression is the same as any other artisan craft and government policy should encourage work, not upper class welfare.
I can’t agree with anything you’ve stated Mike B. Firstly:
“Generally when producers tell consumers to “take it or leave it” that’s regarded as bad customer service”
Not particularly and not generally, no, I don’t. More specifically, there is an entire class of producers that I’d say this is always universally wrong: artisanal craftsman (which most artists can generally fall under). Additionally, this would generally be wrong for most high-end producers as well. I could further explore but for now I’ll just say this sounds more like your personal entitlement than a general truth of market conditions.
“yet when artists and writers do it they are held up as some sort of shining example”
Yes, it is. I’m unsure why it would be any other way.
“At the end of the day a decision not to create or not to license makes the world worse off because consumer demand is going un-met. That’s Economics 101.”
This is nonsense. Economics says that if a consumer demand isn’t met, it continue to go unmet, will be fulfilled by a producer if they choose to, the consumer can find a substitute, or another producer can step in to meet the demand. It says absolutely nothing about a producer failing the consumer or market for not meeting a demand they choose not to fill.
“I think it’s easy to say that such and such wealthy creators would do it the same way even if they were “living on the street”, but the truth is that creators will almost always give in if it means putting food on the table.”
Which says absolutely nothing about the quality of the art produced, only that people need to survive in order to not be dead. The world is ripe with examples of producers/artists producing just for the money and their art/product suffering. Movies, tv shows, books, art, basic consumer goods… I’m unsure if you are trying to prove my point or what.
Likewise, the world is ripe with some of the greatest art produced by artists that were never rewarded for their creations and yet they persisted and they exist without the financial incentive/payoff. In fact, this is a bad generalization but I would say that more and better art is produced absent economic incentive or in circumstances where the economic conditions are against the artist.
“The whole idea of the creator being able to sit back and not make things is rooted in the European idea that the arts are the realm of the wealthy aristocracy aka the “idle rich”. ”
The history of Europe is long and not homogeneous. There are innumerable different models for artists to make a living throughout Europe… however, it’s actually very rare that art was produced by the wealthy aristocracy capable of producing art in their idle time. As I already argued, there are many models for the “artist” throughout European history, but if I were to generalize, I would give it to the religious who developed crafts, trades, and artistry as a sign of their devotion. Although the Church held a great deal of wealth, these artists certainly didn’t get to have it as individuals. And they certainly weren’t idle.
Even if you mean the age of patronage, when wealthy aristocrats supported artists, the artists were rarely aristocrats themselves and were never idle. In fact, they specifically had to do what their patrons told them to do.
“Copyright law as we know it today was born in Europe and was designed to implement that ideal where artists could sit back and keep their art “pure” based on a lifetime stream of mailbox income.”
This doesn’t sound remotely like reality to me. Again, I’m hesitant to generalize but if we are going to generalize the reality is that throughout most of history, artists have not been rewarded for their work substantially, had humble lives, and had to work diligently throughout their lives at other pursuits. Sure, there are always a few that have risen to the top, always superstars… but for every huge success there are a hundred who toiled in obscurity and were denied the benefits of their labor.
“I reject that notion. Creative expression is the same as any other artisan craft and government policy should encourage work, not upper class welfare.”
Again, this doesn’t mirror my reality and you side as if you are coming from a perspective of entitlement and resentment for the rare artistic success.