Anything but the obscurity!

I’ve already mentioned this interesting set of ideas Cory Doctorow brought up. In particular, this part of the introduction made me think:

Cory is an author of science fiction (SF) and is published in the US by Tor books (which happens to share a parent company with Nature). He also gives away books on the web. As Tim O’Reilly says, the main danger for most authors is not piracy but obscurity. The number of people who don’t buy a book because they can copy the electronic version is trivial compared to the number who buy it as a result of finding it online. Now the biggest factor determining success for an author is having a relationship with their audience.

Then read this essay on The life expectancies of books (by TNH, so of course it’s worth reading). It’s about the ephemeral nature of literary popularity and copyright, inevitable obscurity, and the self-defeating nature of legalistic attempts to define ownership of ideas.

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

There are also some insights in the addendum to the whole mostly unappreciated machinery of advertising and presentation and availability that are important for bringing books to our attention. Piracy is a real problem, but it seems that it’s being fought with misplaced strategies that promote long-term uniformity and corporate interests and the same ol’ thing over and over again, rather than diversity and imagination.


  1. #1 MAJeff
    January 27, 2006

    As I read the US Constitution, copyright is to encourage people to produce for the benefit of society. In other words copyright is about public benefits, not property rights. Current law, of course, is all about property rights with little or no regard to public benefit.

    Yes, the lovely “Progress Clause.” A great look at this (and how it was shot down by SCOTUS) can be found in Lessig’s Free Culture (also downloadable for free). Well worth a read.

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