Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ten Percent of Your Life, Plus Seventy Five Years

Doctor Cleveland has written a perceptive post about how the extensions in copyright law that occurred back in the 1970s and 1990s transformed Philip Marlowe from a writer's creation into a sort of corporate property:
I don’t grudge Chandler’s grandchildren a few royalty payments, but he has no grandchildren. Raymond Chandler, like so many of his characters, died lonely. His estate went to his agent after a fight in probate court with Chandler’s secretary. Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s only child. [John] Banville and his publisher will have to pay a cut of the new [estate-commissioned Philip Marlowe] book’s profits to the Chandler estate, but that money won’t go to anyone Raymond Chandler ever met.
A few commenters on the good Doctor's post seem to get wrapped up in whether it's wise for novelists to appropriate a character from a previous writer's work and take him or her on as their own. I myself have always found such projects to be more marketing hype than books worth reading (Any one remember Alexandra Ripley's Gone With the Wind sequel?) This has less to do with issues of copyright and more to do with whether it's possible for one writer to satisfyingly recreate another's characters.

But, the larger issue is when texts and characters should be freely available for the public to use as they please for any number of creative and academic purposes. When can someone make another Philip Marlowe movie or adapt his stories as graphic novels or create a video game starring him without having to jump through hoops with the copyright owners? When can scholars create new editions of classic texts without having to get the approval of the authors' estates, which can often be very controlling and resistant to changes that might not reflect  the popular image of an author.  I myself was considering putting together a new edition of Raymond Chandler's letters (and there are some doozies out there that have never been published), but the terms proposed by the estate were rather restrictive and discouraged me from pursuing it further.

I have absolutely no problem with copyright, which I believe clearly should last for an author's lifetime and long enough thereafter to provide a valuable estate to his or her family. But, there seems to be a natural limit beyond which the protection ceases to encourage authorship and serves more to just prolong an unproductive status quo. Life + 75 years is certainly far too long.

1 comment:

Crimezine said...

Very good points. The same is true with the Hammett estate and many others. “Copyright” law has transcended its original purpose and is now being used by packs of lawyers to monoplize “Intellectual properties” For example it is now theoretically impossible to use the word Picasso without paying an intellectual property fee. Ridiculous.

Keep up the good work. Tony Bulmer