08 December 2006

Not Cutting the Mustard

Don't try to find any grand organizing principle here.

  • The NYT "editorial" on bibliographies in novels completely misses the litigation-avoidance point of including it. A bibliography is not an immunity shield that prevents someone from filing a claim; it is just a preemptive device that undermines such claims before they're even made. And, given Mr Mailer's works, his novels seem particularly in need of all the preemptive legal help they can get.
  • The hardest part of publishing isn't selling books; it isn't editing books; it's determining what books to publish. The industry suffers from an odd mix of nineteenth-century sensibilities, twentieth-century business structures, and twenty-first-century technology. Leaving aside the purported preference for Courier as a standard typeface (I have yet to meet a reputable editor at a commercial publisher who would reject a book-length manuscript because it didn't use Courier), the entire acquisition system would leave Rube Goldberg unable to discern how it works. Things get no better when looking at distribution, particularly in the Internet Age.
  • Over in the UK, the Gowers Report (PDF, 700k) on adjusting intellectual property statutes to contemporary concerns bears some careful consideration. On the one hand, the report (rightly, IMNSHO) dismisses recent calls to extend the copyright for sound recordings, which is currently 50 years in the UK. To my mind, a 50-year flat term is about the right copyright term for anything. The vast majority of copyrightable works that continue to have any commercial value 50 years after creation were created by people in their late twenties and older. Changing the entire system to accommodate a few high-value items misconstrues the purpose of copyright, at least under the American rubric: promoting progress in the arts. Note, too, that the loss of copyright in a particular recording does not mean that the copyright holder cannot exploit it at all; it means only that others can, too, without permission or payment (presuming that we ignore droit morale and droit d'auteur, because just about everyone does). There's a very simple way for copyright holders to maintain an income stream: Add value to the piece after its copyright expires. Obsessive fans of Cliff Richard would probably be interested in reading his behind-the-scenes-in-the-studio description of how his greatest hits came to be as part of a reissue-CD insert, and would pay an appropriate premium for such a collection. Whether this is consistent with my notion of "progress" in the arts is beside the point (burning Sir Cliff's master tapes would do better); the market makes a lot of mistakes in promoting "progress."

    On the other hand, means, methods, and motivations for enforcement of copyright get some very thoughtful consideration. I'm still chewing over the Report, but some other actors have already formed their opinions. It seems to me that the real problem with copyright exploitation is the same as that of winning the lottery (or, more topically, the Irish Sweepstakes): The possible magnitude of gain overwhelms rational consideration of the probable total return. Current distribution structures only reinforce that misanalysis. But that's for another time, at much greater length (and with a lot more footnotes).