John_ScalziAmidst the all the hand-wringing about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the public domain, came this thought-provoking essay by John Scalzi.

In it, he laments his daughter’s lack of interest in Heinlein, Asimov and other sci-fi masters. She reads, he hastens to point out. But she reads her own books, as he did in his youth.

This would, on the surface, seem to be a defence to all the hand-wringing. Who cares if the TPP increases the duration of copyright if, as Scalzi asserts, the shelf life of the average best-seller—in YA, anyway, where the audience ages out of the genre—is ten years anyway?

But that, I think, is precisely the point in favour of shorter copyright durations. If people aren’t going to be interested in it when it becomes free, in 70 year what makes you think that a mere 50 years out, they’ll be interested, and pay for it?

Scalzi points out, correctly, that one of the big issues with the classics he remembers is their discoverability:

“As a practical matter, classic science fiction isn’t selling where today’s kids are buying (or where they are being bought for), namely, in the YA section of the book store. See for yourself: Walk into your local bookstore, head to the YA racks and try to find a science fiction or fantasy-themed book that more than fifteen years old.”

He’s right; even the not-dead-yet authors seem to fall into just three categories: current, and popular; current, and not that popular, or not-so-current, but niche. And by niche I mean local (quick, how many Americans have heard if, say, David Adams Richards or Gail Bowen?) or academic (see: the enduring popularity of Alice Munro, whose lone ‘novel’ I studied three separate times in university). People aren’t buying many of those books for fun!

So where does that leave the classics? And where does that leave the not-yet-classics? That is a difficult question. I personally believe in the public domain more as a principle than as an actual source of reading material. I think that all creators draw upon a well of common culture in their own education and coming of age, which influences their work, albeit at times subconsciously. And I think it is only fair that their own creative products thereby join that common pool of culture for other creators to draw upon someday, after a reasonable—but not excessive—term of copyright has ended.

But I have to admit, when I have the choice myself to make use of this common pool directly, I seldom do. Most of the books I read are current ones, even though the classics are freely available. Most of the movies I watch are current ones, even though the Internet Archive has full-length features available for free.

I think many people hear people like me argue about the public domain and assume it is because we are reluctant to pay or content. That is not what it is about at all; most of it, as Scalzi points out, is so dated that most contemporary customers won’t read it for free, let alone for money. To me, it is about allowing new works to be created (see: Gregory Maguire’s ‘Wicked’ series) without the impediment of regulation, just as the original works on which these new ones are based once were. It is about preserving the principle of a common pool of knowledge an culture and history that everyone can enrich and draw upon.


  1. What he doesn’t say is that it’s a two way street. The kids may not read the classics, but I don’t read the YA. In fact, I’m beginning to believe science fiction is a dying (to me, at least) genre. There are fewer and fewer authors writing books I want to read. There is too much emphasis on making sure the book would make a good series or movie. I’ll go back to classics.

    • Funny thing is, that’s not exactly new. When Ian Fleming wrote James Bond, he planned from the outset to get them made into movies because that was where the big money was. His over eagerness to have them adapted led to some trouble down the road–the Casino Royale and Thunderball rights messes.

  2. I find it particularly sad when young people only read what’s recent. Each decade or so puts its own spin on life. Read only what’s new, and your mind is getting a distorted view of how life should be lived.

    I realized that most vividly when I watched a currently popular celebrity panel v. visitor needing money show that’d been posted on Youtube. The sheer vanity and nastiness of the minor celebrities was disgusting. They seemed to be going out of their way to be mean to the guest, as if that made them look clever.

    That then made me recall when I watched this on Youtube:

    Yes, that’s someone on a 1950s TV show called “I’ve Got a Secret” who was in Ford theater when Lincoln was shot. Notice how genial, courteous and intelligent the panel was at that time. We rarely see their like today.


    If you want even more revealing comparison:

    1. Read or listen to South, Ernest Shackleton’s account of his Discovery expedition and how he and his team worked against almost impossible odds to save every member of the crew.

    2. Compare that to the trashy contemporary ‘survival’ shows on TV where fake situations include voting one person off each week, the TV equivalent of killing them in proper social Darwinian fashion.

    Those are two radically different ways of looking at the world and those who’re only watching what’s contemporary are getting their heads badly screwed up. Shows like those are making our society an increasingly nasty place to be.


    Copyright is in a mess to a great extent because a well-connected and tasteless few (think Hollywood) want it to be as brutal and long-lived as possible. What I’d like is similar to what Creative Commons is doing.

    Have an online system to register copyright ownership (eliminating the orphan text problem) and change a book’s legal copyright status so books are not left in limbo. Authors or their heirs could release a book into the public domain when it’s clear that the book is unlikely to earn much money, but that remembering and reading what was written still matters.

    That, of course, doesn’t go over well in Hollywood or with most intellectual property lawyers and, alas, they’re the ones with the most influence on what direction copyright is likely to take.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

  3. Shorter copyrigth is what consigns works to the trash heap of history. No one reads public domain books becuase, unless someone makes a big budget film, no one is promoting them. Copyright and commercial interest keeps works in the public eye, this is an observable fact.

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