Literary legacies

As more classic works of literature come out of copyright protection, and enter the public domain, publishers and booksellers can look forward to sales of re-packaged titles, for which they won’t have to pay royalties. With the right combination of content and marketing, it’s as good as free money.

Under the Berne Convention, copyright in published works is the life of the author plus 50 years, although many territories have extend this to life plus 70 years (100 in Mexico!). These periods may be subject to extensions if the executors of literary estates are able to renew the existing copyright (under previous copyright regimes) or by issuing revised editions of existing works which are sufficiently different to the original so as to constitute an entirely separate publication – but these are exceptions.

By allowing copyright to lapse, this should mean key works will always be in print, and even more obscure titles can be revived with little to no production cost. For nearly 20 years, Google Books has been scanning works out of copyright and putting them online. But even this process can run into copyright limitations, and questions of provenance (as illustrated by the treatment of George Orwell’s “1984”). But this has also encouraged some enterprising individuals to sell “reprints” of facsimile copies of scanned titles, when the buyer thought they were purchasing an authentic copy, or a contemporary edition (i.e., newly typeset and printed).

Intellectual property law may be complex, and in need of reform to reflect modern technology and contemporary society. But as copyright works pass into the public domain, there remains the issue of moral rights. These give writers the right to be identified as the author of a work (“attribution”), and to protect their work against inappropriate use (“derogatory treatment”). Moral rights also protect writers against “false attribution” – i.e., a publisher can’t claim a work was written by an author who didn’t actually write it.

Moral rights vary from country to country (e.g., Germany, UK, USA, Australia), but generally do not survive when copyright expires. Which can mean that unscrupulous publishers may feel emboldened to “modify” original texts at will, given some recent examples of key 20th century novels. Surely not what authors and their legacies should be subject to?

Next week: Public Indifference?

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