(Un)Happy Public Domain Day – 2017 Edition

puub17So what do the founder of the Surrealist movement, a star of the silent film era, the Japanese author behind the popularization of Buddhism in the West, two female writers at the heart of the Modernist scene, and one of the “fathers of science fiction” have in common this year?

If you guessed that they’re among the creators whose works will be entering the Public Domain this year in other countries but not in the U.S., then you’re right.

Sigh…

Yep, once again, in what has become an annual tradition, it’s time to not celebrate Public Domain Day.

pub001What’s Public Domain Day? Simply put, it’s the day that we recognize the deleterious effects of the changes in copyright law since it was changed in 1978 and subsequently which have kept most of the things that would have gone into the public domain from doing so, and will continue to keep anything new from entering it until at least 2019, and in many cases even longer. As a matter of fact, that 2019 date only applies to the earliest works that will be eligible to enter the public domain. The ones that would be joining it this year most likely won’t actually become a part of it until 2056. And that’s if Congress doesn’t shift the dates on us again, which is altogether likely to happen. This is true for the U.S., though it is not necessarily so in Canada and much of the EU or other parts of the world.

For those of you wondering about the names of the individuals included in the list above, here’s a partial list of this year’s “honorees” courtesy of this page: André Breton; Buster Keaton; László Moholy-Nagy, Gertrude Stein; H. G. Wells; Frank O’Hara; Alfred Stieglitz, Evelyn Waugh; D. T. Suzuki; Paul Nash; Mina Loy, Walt Disney,  W. C. Fields, Lenny Bruce, an C. S. Forester. An that’s just a snippet of the list of authors whose works would be eligible. (More information about each them can be found at the link above or at their respective Wikipedia pages.) As far as movies go, the list includes: The Time Machine, Psycho, Spartacus, Exodus, The Apartment, Inherit the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, Ocean’s 11, The Alamo, The Andy Griffith Show (first episodes) The Flintstones(first episodes).

So what would these works being in the public domain mean in practical terms? As the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School puts it:

pub002Readers interested in iconic stories of courage in the face of racial injustice, or middle class America in the late 1950s, or just great literature, would have something to celebrate. In the current political climate, Shirer’s work, and also those of Hayek, Bell, and Schlesinger, might provide food for thought. And Dr. Seuss’s beloved books would be legally available for free online for children (of all ages).

You would be free to use these books in your own stories, adapt them for theater, animate them, or make them into a film. You could translate them into other languages, or create accessible Braille or audio versions. You could read them online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish them. Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see here, here, and here. Take, for example, The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater—like the works listed above, it was published in 1960; but unlike those works, it’s in the public domain because the copyright was not renewed. You can legally download it for free, and the purchase price for an eBook is $0.99, instead of $10 or $20.

Imagine a digital Library of Alexandria containing all of the world’s books from 1960 and earlier, where, thanks to technology, you can search, link, annotate, copy and paste.

Beyond even that, though, our film heritage is suffering even more. Again, from Duke Law:

The case of film preservation is particularly troubling because older films are literally disintegrating, soon to be lost forever. The overwhelming majority of our cinematic heritage consists of orphan films — they are covered by copyright but have no ascertainable copyright owner. They include newsreels, documentaries, anthropological films, portraits of minority life in the United States, instructional films, and even some Hollywood studio productions. Because copyright law prevents scholars and citizens from using these orphan films (including copying and restoring them for preservation), the existing copies are actually disintegrating. This is because the cellulose nitrate base on which they were made makes them prone to shrinkage, to outgassing that destroys the film’s emulsion, and even to spontaneous combustion. The vast majority (upwards of 90%) of films from the 1910s have already decayed beyond the possibility of restoration. The numbers are only slightly better for works from 1920 to 1950. And the number of orphan films is staggering. As of 2005, of the 13,000 films housed at the Museum of Modern Art, over half were orphan works unavailable to the public. Vast numbers of the 150,000 titles held at the Library of Congress and the 46,000 tiles at the UCLA Film and Television Archive were also orphan films. (For more information, see the 2005 Report on Orphan Films submitted by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at the invitation of the Copyright Office.) The law does allow libraries and archives (not preservationists generally) to digitize films during the last 20 years of their copyright term, but only in limited circumstances: the library or archive first has to determine through a “reasonable investigation” both that the work is not being commercially exploited, and that they cannot obtain another copy of it at a reasonable price.

Learn more about the situation in the U.S. and why the public domain is important in this article in Huff Post Books and this from the Duke Law School’s Centre for the Study of the Public Domain.

My Favorite Detective: A Novel Interlude – A Family Affair

nero208Back before Christmas I posted an article about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe introducing the character and talking about the concept of the armchair detective. In that article (which focused mostly on the radio adventures of the character) I noted that while I could probably find all of the original novels and short stories online either through Amazon or Ebay or downloading them as e-books or whatever, I’m just old school enough that I enjoy having the print editions (yep, there are some things that I just enjoy having hands-on copies of) and tracking them down individually either through going to old booksellers or getting them as gifts. Well, thanks to my mom, I received a 1st edition hardback copy of Stout’s last Wolfe book, A Family Affair.

One of the things that I noted about Stout’s Wolfe stories that I really like is that though he first introduced Wolfe and his associates and various supporting characters in 1934 in a novel entitled Fer-de-Lance, and wrote them to be contemporaneous with society then. as the years passed, though the characters never actually aged and their basic relationships didn’t change, the world around them did, and that was something that Stout acknowledged in his stories. For instance, when America entered World War II, Wolfe became an occasional consultant for the War Department. During the 50s and 60s, Wolfe noted and commented upon the civil rights movement, and some of his cases sprang from that, and so on. As a matte of fact, Stout stated to his biographer John McAleer

“Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years. Any reader who can’t or won’t do the same should skip them. I didn’t age the characters because I didn’t want to. That would have made it cumbersome and would seem to have centered attention on the characters rather than the stories.”

That particular aspect of the stories was never more in evidence than they are in A Family Affair which was first published in 1974 and deals heavily with Wolfe’s reaction to the Watergate scandal which was engulfing the nation at the time. As a matter of fact, a central part of the mystery has to do with if, and if so how, the events that take place might be related to that ongoing scandal.

nero201Another theme of the novel, and the part that gives it its title, has to do with just who constitutes one’s “family”. Is family merely a relationship of blood, or are there other relationships that can also be considered family? This is especially called into question when a character who has been peripherally seen before in the Wolfe stories is killed in a rather gruesome manner under Wolfe’s own roof, which is the event which sets the rest of the story in motion.

I’m not going to give much more of the plot away here, as to do so would deprive the potential reader the fun of following the twists and turns which it takes, except to say that for those who have read previous stories and have come to know and love these characters over the years, the climax does come as something of a gut-punch.

fa1A Family Affair is also one of those stories in which Wolfe breaks, as happens from time to time, some of the established rules that he has set up for himself, and which define him as unique from other characters in the genre, but there is always a good reason for that when it occurs, and that is true here.

I have to say that I don’t recommend A Family Affair as an introduction to Wolfe’s world. There are many other stories and books that would serve that purpose better. On the other hand, though I wish that Stout, who passed away in 1975, not long after the publication of the novel, had been able to write many more stories, if there does have to be a last Wolfe novel it is fitting that this is it.

And fortunately for me, since I’ve made no strict rules about the order I’m reading the stories in, simply devouring each one as I find it, there are still some new adventures out there for me to find, and that is something that makes me very happy. And anxious to head out and see if I can find any more today.

(I’ll also be back soon with the “official” part two of this series, in which I’ll write more about Wolfe himself, and my favorite television adaptation of the character.)