Taking a closer look at the inside cover of a book.
What do you own?A house, maybe? A car? Some land? Or, if you’re a teenager like me, basically nothing?
Or, should I say, basically nothing physical.
Because I own my ideas. I own the words I put onto paper or onto a Google Doc. I own every last half-written “novel” rotting away on my laptop in a folder aptly titled “Writings”.
And I own this article, because I wrote it — even if I did put off writing it later than I probably should have, and will be very sleepy tomorrow.
Or do I?
Have you ever looked at the inside cover of a book? There’s a page, usually on the left hand side, mirroring the dedication, with more boring things like the publisher, and their address, and the book’s ISBN number.
Take a closer look, because there’s something else on there that’s actually quite interesting: the copyright declaration.
For example, the book that’s in my lap right now, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, says that it was copyrighted to him in 1997, and also that he has “asserted his rights under the Copyrights, Designs, and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work”.
The other book in my lap right now, The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean has something else, too: “Alistair MacLean asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.”
Generally, that statement is only printed in books that are either fiction, or non-fiction but theory- or argument-based like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. You don’t see it in books with titles like “The Trees of Bangalore”, because that kind of pure information doesn’t really belong to anybody.
But what do phrases like “the moral right of the author” and “copyrighted to” really mean? Let’s break it down.
A ‘copyright’ is the right of the author to control copies of their work. Copyrights exist to protect the author both intellectually and financially — they get to keep their ideas, and they get to keep the money they make off them.
The Statute of Anne, passed in 1710, was the first government statute to regulate copyright. The reason it gave for having copyright was to “Promote the Progess of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
In ordinary, current English, with a reasonable amount of capitalised letters, this means they instituted the concept of ‘copyright’ so that more people would be encouraged to write and discover.
Today, copyrights are more about money. Authors write them into wills, and give them away as gifts. Publishing houses cling to them. Literature students curse them. Today, a copyright is more like a title deed to a piece of land, that can be owned and transferred and made use of.
But that hasn’t always been the case.
The length of copyright has increased over the years. The extending has happened in fits and starts. The Statute of Anne started by giving authors a fourteen-year period of exclusive ownership, followed by another fourteen if the author was still alive. After that period, the copyright would expire. The work would revert to the ‘public domain’, which is to say, anybody could copy it and modify it and generally use it in any way they felt like.
Fast-forward to today, where authors get a lifetime’s worth of copyright, plus 70 years after they die.
Let’s look at the USA, for example. In 1909, the two fourteen-year periods were doubled to two twenty-eight year periods. Meanwhile, an international grouping of countries had formed in 1896, to standardise the maze of various copyright laws from different countries. It was called the ‘Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works’.
The USA was late to join the Berne Convention, but it finally did so in 1976. And in the process, it overhauled the copyright period to match up with the new standard: the complete lifetime of the author, plus fifty years extra.
In 1998, the USA went further with the Sonny Bono Act. So named for the man who worked hard to defend copyrights in Hollywood, it was extended to seventy years in an effort to preserve Walt Disney’s short film Steamboat Willie.
The Sonny Bono Act didn’t just extend the copyright period. It also did something else: retroactively change the length of copyright to ninety-five years, for any works published between 1923 and 1977. That meant, all the copyrights that were due to expire never did: their lives were extended by another thirty-odd years.
This year, 2019, is ninety-five years after 1923. The decades-long drought on expiring copyrights is about to expire.
Almost all commonly known literature from before 1923 is in the public domain, because it expired right on time unaffected by the Sonny Bono act. And most of that is easily available on a software like Google Books, or archives like the Gutenberg Project. You might also find editions from multiple publishing houses of different calibres, and even different translations of those works.
Shakespeare, for instance, or Sherlock Holmes, are routinely churned out by dozens of publishers. So are books like Jane Eyre and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You’ll find several, sometimes radically different, translations of Tagore, or Russian greats like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Chekhov.
What you won’t find, however, is anything from the recent past. Google Books only lets you search for such titles, not read them in full. Because of this, in a way, it is actually easier to learn about the early years of the 20th century than the later ones; World War I than World War II.
But not any more.
Starting in 2019, there will be a flood of new books entering the public domain every year, as the copyrights of a year’s worth of books from ninety-five years prior expire. Over the next five decades, we’ll see literary gems such as 1984, Death of a Salesman, Stuart Little, and The Little Prince appear a single Google search away.
The Sonny Bono barrier has been overcome, and the stream of expiring copyrights has started flowing, once again, into the public domain again.
But what does being in the ‘public domain’ really mean?
Perhaps most importantly, being in the public domain means that a work can be copied, reprinted, and made money over by basically anyone and everyone. But it also means that it can be excerpted, added to, subtracted from, and changed in any way at all by basically anyone and everyone.
Remember the inside cover of The Tipping Point? There was another phrase on there that we haven’t quite gotten around to just yet. I mean the phrase “moral right has been asserted”.
The concept of ‘moral rights’ was introduced in 1928 by the Berne Convention (which, incidentally, the USA didn’t join until 1976) as the personal right of the author to indefinitely take credit for their works, among other things.
Moral rights allowed the author to be able to publish anonymously or under a pseudonym, and to still have a say in what changes and distortions might be made to their work even after the copyright was no longer theirs.
Moral rights are distinct from any monetary rights that are part of copyright ownership. Moral rights mean that, even though I’m not entirely sure who the copyright on this article belongs to (because I didn’t read Medium’s Terms of Service before I checked the box and may have ended up actually selling my soul to the devil) the rights is still mine.
So, I guess I do own something after all.
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