Skip to main content

Authors: Beware of Copyright

Posted in
Versione stampabile

When an author signs a publication contract, insofar as it contains strict and traditional copyright notices, he is pretty much signing his life away. It used to be that the publisher would maintain control only so long as the book is in print. Today, with digital printing, this means forever: your lifetime plus 70 years.

During this time, you can't even quote significant portions of your own writing without permission from the publisher, and you could find yourself paying the publisher for the rights. You can't read your own book aloud and sell the results. You certainly can't give a journal a chapter.

You could try to be sneaky and change the text a bit, right? Wrong. They've thought of that. You will own and control new matter but the old matter is still the private possession of The Man.

What if the publisher isn't marketing your book? You can yell and scream but they don't have to answer. In fact, most publishers have a system for dealings with authors. It's called voice mail. Emails go unanswered.

You are done for. You sold your soul and you can't get it back. Not within your lifetime. Your creation, which copyright is designed to protect, is now the possession of someone else. This follows the trajectory as laid out in Michele Boldrin and David Levine's smashing new book Against Intellectual Monopoly.

As they explain, this racket began in the 17th century when government instituted the idea of ownership of ideas, precisely so that the government could crush ideas it didn't like. Only approved authors got the stamp of approval. Same with art. But then the authors and creators rose up and demanded their rights in the 18th century, and the copyright idea was transferred from government to private parties, who were then in a position to crush competitors. In the 20th century, this changed again, when the right was transferred from individuals to corporations.

In the digital age that exists simultaneous to the most tyrannical copyright laws ever, this is creating an intolerable situation that amounts to a form of involuntary servitude. Creators write and paint and watch corporate interlopers doom their work to obscurity. The creator hoped to make a dent in the universe but only sees his material land in the recycle bin of history.

Yes, it is done by contract – contract backed by the power of the state. So why do authors put up with it? Mostly because it is a convention, and they haven't known about alternatives. Also, they are bribed by the ego-exploiting promise of royalties that never arrive.

The practical effects can be devastating. There is, for example, a book on Austrian business cycles that was published some years ago, and it is in print from an academic house, but in print only in the most technical sense. It is essentially unaffordable for anyone but a state-funded library with an inelastic demand curve.

The Mises Institute wants to bring it back in paperback and make it affordable. Nope, can't happen. The publisher says that it will do it for us, at a very high price with virtually no discount. They are in their legal rights to do this.

Of course it makes the whole project completely unviable. No deal. The authors are cornered. There is nothing they can do. There is nothing we can do. A great Austrian book, written over the course of ten years, is consigned to the dusty shelves of a handful of libraries, for at least another 70 years.

This is only one case of a hundred that I've seen. It is even worse when the author is dead. The publisher may or may not have handed back the rights to the manuscript. Those rights may or may not have been transferred. They may or may not have been handed on in the will or perhaps they are part of probate.

Yes, a potential new publisher can hunt this down to find out who among 6 billion potential owners actually controls rights to this manuscript. A lawyer is always glad to spend vast amounts of your money doing research. He may or may not come up with an answer you can trust. Meanwhile, you have spent the equivalent of a first print run.

Most potential publishers will say: to heck with it. Again, you have failed to be immortalized by your work. This goes for artists and musical compositions and even recordings of your band or voice. Thanks to federal law since the 1980s, all this material is bound up in a thicket of law, and this thicket will not evaporate for more than one hundred years.

This is what the "intellectual property" of copyright has wrought.

So I say to all authors: please look at your contracts. Don't sign your life away. Publish on the condition of Creative Commons. Claim your rights back as a creator and an author.

How does this work? You have to copyright your work if only to prevent others from claiming copyright and thereby binding all other living persons, including you, from publishing it. Once you claim copyright, add that it is published under the Creative Common License 3.0. This rids your manuscript or song or painting of copyright's provision of doom: the requirement that only one institution can control it.

In other words, it makes your creation part of the free market. It can be posted, recorded, shown, photographed, celebrated by one and all forever. Isn't this why you create in the first place? Isn't this what drove you to write, paint, photograph, sing, or whatever? You want to make a difference. You want credit for your work. This permits it.

Old-fashioned copyright is nothing but a form of modern tyranny in the digital age. It has no future. Bail out of this wicked institution and make sure that your work has a future too.