How Long is too Long?

So, here’s a moral dilemma.  I mean, it’s not a dilemma.  It is more like a little bit of moral tension.

I have some very strong views on copyright.  Or, to put it differently:  I have very strong views on the strength of copyright.  I think, among other things, that the term of copyright granted in our society is way too long.  I think, among other things, that fan fiction should be unambiguously allowed.  If I had my way, I’d set the term of copyright to the term of patents, or at most twice that:  twenty to forty years, max.  Possibly twenty years with an additional twenty year automatic extension, which must be applied for with a tiny (say $10) processing fee.

That is never, ever going to happen, so I think that the second-best thing is to contract around onerous copyright rules, e.g., through a Creative Commons license.

But I did just happen to sign a contract that gives HQN the rights to my copyright so long as my book remains in print, for the natural length of copyright.  I feel . . . very ambiguous about this.  I feel that it would be wrong–really wrong, and because I feel so strongly about copyright length, for me, downright morally hazardous–if one of my descendants were still making royalties off my book in a century.  And however much I still want my book to be on sale then (I know, dream on), it bothers me.

Ultimately, I had no problem signing the contract simply because I don’t think my book will be in print in 100 years, and my rights will revert to me, and I’ll probably release it into the public domain long before then, either by bequest or during my life–because once my book has lived out its time of commercial viability, I feel I have an obligation to release it into the public domain, even if technically the copyright has many decades to go.

What do you think of all this?  If you’re an author, do you feel like you have any interest at all in what happens to your books 100 years from now?  Does it bother you to think you can hold on to a piece of culture for a full century?

8 thoughts on “How Long is too Long?

  1. I’m trying to make sense of this whole thing. I never really thought about copyright except to think that rights belonged to the author, not the publishing company. Part of me thinks that if you worked so hard on this book, earn money from the sales of said book, and in 100 years, your book is still making sales, then, yes, it’d be nice to have your descendants get a slice of that pie. But if your line dies out, then who gets the money? Does anyone own the copyright to Shakespeare or Austen, and if so, who gets the money off those sales?

    And I know it’s not just about money, but what can happen in the direction of future books. Who’s the family of the deceased author who has absolute control over his works, and if I remember correctly, the family got into some legal snafu with another author when they wanted to publish a sequel to a book? (Or something like that, my memory remembers the barest of bones on that one).

    I guess I would want the rights to belong to me, but I would also need a lawyer to explain it to me what copyright laws meant and what that entailed.

  2. Noooo! Copyright expires! It must, or at least, it should. (Here’s frowning at you, Britain, for Peter Pan–boo!) Shakespeare is public domain. So is Jane Austen. John Donne. Mozart. Bach. Beethoven.

    Copyright is willed just like anything else. I can will my copyright to anyone, who can then give it (or sell it in toto) to anyone, anyone at all–almost as if it were a car or a house.

    The difference is that my copyright expires 70 years after my death, and I think that’s too long.

    I don’t see copyright as something that’s *mine*. I see it as something that belongs to society–I let you guys read what I wrote for all time, in return, you give me the chance to make a little money off it for a limited time. No reason society should give me something in exchange for nothing.

    Life+70 years is effectively perpetual copyright–and I hate that.

  3. I didn’t realize copyright ran quite that long. I mean, I’m going to live another 70 years and then there’s another 70 years on top of it.

    You are right, doesn’t neeed to be quite THAT long. 🙂

  4. I agree that it’s way too long. I also heartily agree about fanfiction! 😉

    I think my feelings about the general issue are similar to yours, but I probably arrive at them from a different place. I’m not a legal scholar, so I don’t really think about the laws that often or intricately. But I never understand it when authors get in a snit over Google Books or fanfiction or the like, saying “These are MY books and MY characters! How dare they!” If I wanted them to stay MY books and MY characters, I wouldn’t publish them?. I publish with the hope that the stories and characters I create will become something much more than “mine.” The magic of fiction, to me, comes in the interaction between the author’s text and the reader’s imagination. There are some literary characters and fictional worlds that gain such mass in the collective imagination, they really do take on a life of their own. Hamlet, Harry Potter, Holden Caufield, Elizabeth Bennet, Buffy. To create something that ceases to be “mine” and becomes “society’s”–dang, that’s the holy grail of authorship, in my eyes.

    In other words, I think it is my fondest hope to inspire rampant copyright infringement. 🙂

  5. Wow. Lawyers really do think about different types of things than other people. Would never have occured to me to ponder this.

    Is it known that the original reasoning for that length of time was? To be able to evaluate whether those parameters still exist or not?

  6. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with copyright lasting as long as the life of the author, and maybe just a bit longer. A person who writes some phenominal successes early in life should be able to continue to make money off of them as long as they remain in demand, and the author’s spouse probably shouldn’t be cut off from that immediately upon the author’s death. Seventy years after death? Way too much. If the author’s widow or widower is still living off of that money after seventy years, then the author was doing some pretty severe cradle-robbing, and the author’s descendents shouldn’t need nearly that much time to make their own money. The most I can see being reasonable is life+twenty years so that if said author had a baby just before dying, that kid would have a chance to grow up before the money went away.

    Fanfiction should be unambiguously allowed because nobody is making money off of it. Profiting off of somebody else’s ideas (while they still have copyright) without permission is wrong, and trying to pass off somebody else’s ideas for your own is wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with writing down the “what if?” ideas you have based on somebody else’s work and sharing them for free when everybody knows what is from the source and what is original. Anybody who thinks that fanon *is* canon is delusional and not worth the original author’s concern.

  7. I absolutely agree that copyright durations are too long and as a law student studying copyright law, I can tell you, it’s mostly for corporate purposes and not artists or society. I don’t agree that “if it’s free, infringement should be allowed.” Fanfiction is fine because it’s essentially free promotion for the original work and it’s about passion and flattery for the author. If I were to completely write a rip off of your book and give it away though, it might devalue your work and make people choose the free knockoff instead. That’s not fair.

    Fan fiction doesn’t run that risk and it may be fair use under the law. Also, unless your contract says so, the copyright doesn’t revert to you once you’ve sold it… ever.

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