Let’s talk copyright

Bringing up copyright around authors can be a bit like opening Pandora’s Box, but let’s have a go, shall we? After all, a renown scholar, author, and lawyer Leslie Klinger has just sued an author’s estate on whether a particular character is in the public domain. The character in question? Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

“It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws,” Klinger said. “However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.”

Now before we get all defensive on one side or the other, fan fiction VS. original creators, let’s follow the rights trail. When Conan Doyle died in 1930, he left his literary estate to his three children, Denis, Adrian, and Jean. Denis did quite a bit with the rights before he died, and then Adrian took over, but after that it gets tricky. The rights bounced around a bit after Denis’ widow, Nina, had some financial trouble and lost them to the bank. For about ten years, the rights were held by non-family parties. In the early 1980s, however, the UK put Sherlock & Co., into the public domain, and the US gave preference to family heirs like Jean to reclaim copyrights, and Jean did just that. She had some fun with the rights, allowed some different interpretations like Young Sherlock Holmes, and then bequeathed the rights to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, who then sold it back to Conan Doyle cousins (Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.).

Sherlock Holmes copyright holders since Arthur Conan Doyle's death

Sherlock Holmes copyright holders since Arthur Conan Doyle’s death (info from New York Times, 2010.)

So what, exactly, is the Conan Doyle Estate managing now? US rights to 10 stories from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Everything else was published prior to 1923, so Conan Doyle’s copyrights have expired, leaving the content in the public domain. Now, I haven’t read The Case-Book, but from reading The Adventures and The Memoirs, which are free in the public domain, I have a firm grasp of the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Klinger is compiling a collection of Sherlock stories, inspired by Conan Doyle’s originals. The Estate wants a cut, even though Klinger’s collection excludes any details from The Case-Book.

I make a point to stand up for authors in difficult legal situations, and it’s clear that the author to defend in this case is Klinger. Conan Doyle and his heirs had years of fun and profit from the Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, and even Klinger is willingly paying the estate for use of the stories that they still control. But when 50 other stories are sitting in the public domain, inspiring fan fiction and other creative works, it’s clear that the spirit of the Holmes’ character is free.

“This isn’t the first time the Estate has put pressure on creators,” Klinger added on his Free Sherlock site. “It is the first time anyone has stood up to them. In the past, many simply couldn’t afford to fight or to wait for approval, and have given in and paid off the Estate for ‘permission.’ I’m asking the Court to put a permanent stop to this kind of bullying. Holmes and Watson belong to the world, not to some distant relatives of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Klinger filed his suit last week, and it seems like he’s the right man for the job.

In a broader copyright sense, most authors want their works protected so that they get a piece of the pie when someone reads a copy of their book, decides to make a movie based on the book, or a little figurine of a character. When websites try to distribute content for free, or someone else lays claim to the story and tries to publish it under their name, copyright laws allow the author or their representatives to swoop in and stop those pirates and plagiarizers. And sometimes royalties keep coming in after the author’s death, giving a little monetary boost to kids and grandkids. But from that messy chart up there, you can see why eventually, copyrights must expire, stories must become a part of our general culture, and characters must become free.

Jane Austen’s two-month turnaround

Thinking today of the lovely Jane Austen on the 200th anniversary of her most popular novel’s publication. Her brother Henry acted as her literary agent, and Thomas Egerton paid her 110 pounds as an advance, just two months before Pride and Prejudice‘s release.

Today’s writers have it a bit different — not that you’re paid much more, since $175 in 1813 would be about $2,500 today — but you do have to wait a good while longer before holding a copy of your published book. If an agent made a deal in November 2012, it’s likely that by today the contract negotiation may be complete and signed by the author and publisher.

Months go by afterward as the editors edit, marketers market, and sales associates try to convince bookstores that your book is going to be a popular one, one that must have a place on their shelves! Designers whip up several cover options, trying to pin-point just the right image that might grab a passerby. As all this happens, you will wait, occasionally sending back revisions to your editor and hoping that all this waiting will pay off in the end.

Then the publishers wait as well, timing the release of your novel at the best possible moment — right before Christmas, or alongside a related historic event.

But I have to say, if I were around in January of 1813, I would have been ever so glad to obtain a copy of Pride and Prejudice to warm me through these long winter months. And perhaps, since she wrote the first draft, First Impressions, nearly 20 years earlier, Jane deserved her quick publication turnaround.

Finding and finishing thought-provoking books

This week I kept coming across lists of discarded books; books that many people either claim to have read but haven’t, or books that readers simply give up on. See Goodreads’ “Most Read But Unfinished” list and i09 posted this week “10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read”.

When someone starts a book but doesn’t finish it, the book is usually too daunting or requires too much effort. i09’s science fiction list focuses on a lot of titles in this category. People want to read something, but they’ve heard everyone talk about it so much they can fake it. Or they just go see the movie. The user-generated Goodreads’ list is an interesting bag of titles, but it includes such classics as Anna KareninaPride and Prejudice, and Moby Dick. It also includes several on my own unfinished list: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Atlas Shrugged, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Does this mean that our reading spectrum is moving toward mediocre? If the classics and other thought-provoking reads require too much effort, are our favorite books somewhere in the Target aisle?

It’s hard to pinpoint where bookworms’ tastes lie, but even my own choices have been of the middle-of-the-road variety lately. Although I started The Brothers Karamazov this year, I have yet to finish it, or even make it halfway. The writing is enjoyable, the story compelling and really, it’s right up my alley. I just need to make the leap over the length and language. Over the last few months, the only classic I can really claim to have finished is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first short story collection centering around that insufferable, arrogant man who happens to be a brilliant detective of the people, Sherlock Holmes.

While it may be easy to blame the publishing industry for pushing books like 50 Shades of Grey underneath our pillows, for better or for worse, they give us more of what we buy. (And we bought more than 20 million copies of 50 SoG). So unless there’s a Will McAvoy of publishing out there willing to put all his energy behind publishing books that are good for us to read whether it sells or not, it’s up to us as consumers to a make an effort.

When I’m looking for something good, I read reviews in the local newspaper and my favorite magazines, or check out Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness for upcoming book releases and reviews. I go to specific publisher sites, and see what’s included in their latest catalogues. For suggestions a little bit outside the NYC publishing center, I read Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin on Poets&Writers. I challenge the bookworms out there to read something a little beyond their normal reach. After my own search, I decided to go with True Believers by Kurt Anderson, which I found on Shelf Awareness.

True Believers

True Believers by Kurt Anderson

A judge turns down a chance at joining the Surpreme Court, knowing that her adventures in the 1960s will come to light in the process. Instead she decides to write a memoir that will reveal the shocking secret about her past. The book jumps back and forth between the 60s and the present, which the Mad Men fan in me can’t help but get excited about, but it also covers a lot of Cold War political history, which is a little outside my comfort zone. Dubbed a mystery and a coming-of-age story, it’s also a cultural and political commentary with a powerful female heroine. I’m hoping for more than entertainment. I’m hoping that it will make me think.

Of course the key to choosing a challenging read is to finish it! Check back for a review on True Believers (and possibly  The Brothers Karamazov) once I’m finished.