Clas­sic books en­joy re­vival as copy­rights run out

The State (Sunday) - - Stay Connected - BY ALEXAN­DRA AL­TER

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.

“Even­tu­ally, these books be­long to the peo­ple,” said James L.W. West III, a Fitzger­ald scholar. “We can have new at­tempts to edit and rein­ter­pret all of these iconic texts.”

Once books be­come part of the pub­lic do­main, any­one can sell a dig­i­tal, au­dio or print edi­tion on Ama­zon. Fans can pub­lish and sell their own sequels and spinoffs, or re­lease ir­rev­er­ent mon­ster mashups like the 2009 best­seller “Pride and Prej­u­dice and Zom­bies.”

Theater and film pro­duc­ers can adapt the works into movies, plays and mu­si­cals without hav­ing to se­cure rights. Ri­val pub­lish­ing houses can is­sue new print edi­tions, and schol­ars can pub­lish new an­no­tated ver­sions and in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Free dig­i­tal copies will cir­cu­late on­line. At the start of the new year, Google Books, which has more than 30 mil­lion works scanned in its vast on­line dig­i­tal li­brary, will re­lease full dig­i­tal edi­tions of works pub­lished in 1923, among them Edgar Rice Bur­roughs’ “Tarzan and the Golden Lion” and Edith Whar­ton’s “A Son at the Front.”

It’s dif­fi­cult to say ex­actly how many works will en­ter the pub­lic do­main this Jan­uary, be­cause some au­thors and pub­lish­ers al­lowed their copy­right to lapse, and some for­eign-lan­guage books first pub­lished over­seas in 1923 may re­main un­der copy­right for now, like Felix Sal­ten’s “Bambi.” More than 130,000 copy­right reg­is­tra­tions were filed in 1923 for var­i­ous cre­ative works, but most of those were not re­newed, ac­cord­ing to John Mark Ockerbloom, a dig­i­tal li­brary strate­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Some pub­lish­ers and the writ­ers’ heirs fear that los­ing copy­right pro­tec­tions will lead to in­fe­rior edi­tions with ty­pos and other er­rors and to de­riv­a­tive works that dam­age the in­tegrity of iconic sto­ries.

“Pub­lish­ers are right to be con­cerned about a pro­lif­er­a­tion of un­re­li­able edi­tions, some of them prob­a­bly not very good,” said John Kulka, the ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor of Li­brary of Amer­ica, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that pub­lishes Amer­i­can lit­er­ary clas­sics.

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