Clas­sic books en­joy re­vival as copy­rights run out

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Local - BY ALEXAN­DRA AL­TER

‘‘ CON­SUMERS AND READ­ERS ARE DEF­I­NITELY GO­ING TO BEN­E­FIT FROM THIS. Imke Reimers, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity

Nearly a cen­tury ago, pub­lisher Al­fred A. Knopf re­leased a slim book of spir­i­tual fa­bles by an ob­scure Le­banese-Amer­i­can poet and painter named Kahlil Gi­bran.

Knopf had mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions, and printed around 1,500 copies. Much to his sur­prise, the book – ti­tled “The Prophet” – took off. It be­came a huge hit, and went on to sell more than 9 mil­lion copies in North Amer­ica alone.

Un­til now, the pub­lish­ing house that still bears Knopf’s name has held the North Amer­i­can copy­right on the ti­tle. But that will change Tues­day, when “The Prophet” en­ters the pub­lic do­main, along with works by thou­sands of other artists and writ­ers, in­clud­ing Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Joseph Con­rad, Edith Whar­ton, P.G. Wode­house, Rud­yard Ki­pling, Kather­ine Mans­field, Robert Frost and Wal­lace Stevens.

This com­ing year marks the first time in two decades that a large body of copy­righted works will lose their pro­tected sta­tus – a shift that will have pro­found con­se­quences for pub­lish­ers and lit­er­ary es­tates, which stand to lose both money and cre­ative con­trol.

But it will also be a boon for read­ers, who will have more edi­tions to choose from, and for writ­ers and other artists who can cre­ate new works based on clas­sic sto­ries without get­ting hit with an in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty law­suit.

“Books are go­ing to be avail­able in a much wider va­ri­ety now, and they’re go­ing to be cheaper,” said Imke Reimers, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity who has stud­ied the im­pact of copy­right. “Con­sumers and read­ers are def­i­nitely go­ing to ben­e­fit from this.”

The sud­den del­uge of avail­able works traces back to leg­is­la­tion Congress passed in 1998, which ex­tended copy­right pro­tec­tions by 20 years. The law re­set the copy­right term for works pub­lished from 1923 to 1977 – length­en­ing it from 75 years to 95 years af­ter pub­li­ca­tion – es­sen­tially freez­ing their pro­tected sta­tus. (The law is of­ten re­ferred to by skep­tics as the “Mickey Mouse Pro­tec­tion Act,” since it has kept “Steam­boat Wil­lie,” the first Dis­ney film fea­tur­ing Mickey, un­der copy­right un­til 2024.)

Now that the term ex­ten­sion has run out, the spigot has been turned back on. Each Jan­uary will bring a fresh crop of nov­els, plays, mu­sic and movies into the pub­lic do­main. Over the next few years, the im­pact will be par­tic­u­larly great, in part be­cause the 1920s were such a fer­tile and ex­per­i­men­tal pe­riod for Western lit­er­a­ture, with the rise of masters like F. Scott Fitzger­ald, Wil­liam Faulkner, Ernest Hem­ing­way and Vir­ginia Woolf.

Once books be­come part of the pub­lic do­main, any­one can sell a dig­i­tal, au­dio or print edi­tion.

Fans can pub­lish and sell their own se­quels and spinoffs, or re­lease ir­rev­er­ent mon­ster mashups like the 2009 best-seller “Pride and Prejudice and Zom­bies.”

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