(I originally posted this to the Literature discussion section of MyMedia, but since I have a page on copyright, and have railed often against its abuse *coughDisneycough*, I wanted to post it here as well.)
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With the recent death of Harper Lee, celebrated author of that quintessential classic of US literature, To Kill a Mockingbird, some readers and industry professionals have been uneasy about her legacy.
After all, after last summer’s release of the never-before-published prequel/sequel, Go Set a Watchman, which created strong, and often wildly disparate opinions among fans of Ms Lee’s first novel, there was speculation as to the circumstances under which the manuscript was discovered, and about whether its publication went against the wishes of the author.
Now, Ms Lee’s estate first official action has been to stop publication of any and all mass paperback editions of To Kill a Mockingbird–after requesting the courts to seal the beloved author’s will.
Many people are wondering what motive would Tonja Carter, who was Ms Lee’s lawyer and who is the executor of her estate, have to want to hide her late client’s will from public eyes.
Whatever her reason, her move to block the publication and reprinting of the inexpensive paperback editions, which would force new readers to purchase the much pricier trade paperback editions, is undoubtedly going to taint Ms Lee’s legacy–as well as making it less likely that schools will continue to list To Kill a Mockingbird in their required reading lists:
Of course, the book will still be available in any public library in the country, and used copies are available on Amazon for prices as low as 40 cents (plus shipping and handling). But the disappearance of the mass-market edition could have a significant impact on schools. The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance. In 1988, the National Council of Teachers of English reported that To Kill a Mockingbird was taught in a whopping 74 percent of schools and that “Only Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Huckleberry Finn were assigned more often.” Today, To Kill a Mockingbird has almost certainly surpassed the controversial Finn as the most assigned novel in America’s middle- and high schools, and those often cash-strapped schools are far more likely to buy the cheaper mass-market edition than the more expensive trade paperback.
Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools. (Schools typically receive a bulk sale rate that gives them more than 50 percent off of the list price of a book—they most likely pay less than $4.50 per copy of the mass-market paperback of TKAM, whereas a copy of the trade paperback would cost no more than $7.50.) Hachette is upfront about this possibility: a bullet point in the email reads, “The disappearance of the iconic mass-market edition is very disappointing to us, especially as we understand this could force a difficult situation for schools and teachers with tight budgets who cannot afford the larger, higher priced paperback edition that will remain in the market.”(source)
In the long term, Ms Carter’s decision may make her (or, I should say, Ms Lee’s heirs–whomever they may be), a bit more money in royalties, during the short term. In the long term, it’s more likely that the novel’s popularity will decline.
Readers are not made of money, and there are only so many library copies to go around, after all.
This is likely to have a negative impact on the cultural influence of this iconic novel in future generations, as it will not be a widely and easily available to future generations of readers.
Which is one of the most damning consequences of the abuse of copyright law, as it makes it legal to distort the spirit of copyright (which is to protect the creator–not lawyers or corporations):
And the most damning of all in this is that when Lee published the book back in 1960, she knew that the absolute longest the book would be under copyright would be 56 years — or, right up until this year. Yes, the incentive to Lee to write the book was such that it was perfectly fine for her knowing that on January 1st, 2017, the book would go into the public domain. Unfortunately, thanks to the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, it’ll be many, many decades before the book actually goes into the public domain, if it ever does (if my calculations are correct, the book should hit the public domain in 2056 under current law).
And here we now see the clear market distortion of copyright. It’s obvious that Lee did not need these additional four decades of copyright protection because, after all, she wrote the book having no clue that copyright would be extended in that manner. So there was no additional “incentive” necessary here. And yet, rather than going into the public domain in 9 months, allowing the book to be distributed freely on the internet or in a wide variety of super inexpensive mass market paperbacks (like other public domain material), instead, such versions of the book are being liquidated, and the only new copies available will be much more expensive. The gap between what the book should cost as a public domain book and what it will cost now as only a trade paperback — for the next forty years — is a blatant tax on the public created entirely by copyright law. (source)