Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
ou Will Not Outlive Your Copyright
(and Neither Will Your Novel)
A.C.E. Bauer

I had this argument, once, with a writer who insisted that copyrights should last as long as possible because, as she put it, “My grandkids should get every penny they can from my work.”  That assumes, of course, that her work will continue to generate pennies long after her death; I’d wager a year’s salary that it won’t.

The fact is, in any generation of artists, only a handful are geniuses.  Through talent and perseverance, a large number of non-geniuses will experience success:  they will publish books, garner fans, host discussion boards, be respected by their peers.  A few may even make enough money to quit their day jobs.  But better than 99 percent of them will be forgotten within 20 years of their death, if not sooner.  Writing a book to become immortal is a pipe dream.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not dissing the quality of the work produced by anyone—to the contrary.  Most of my favorite reading comes from contemporary writers, and they are producing fabulous, innovative stuff.  But I also know that after I’m dead, many more wonderful writers will publish things that their contemporaries will find wonderful, and whatever I’ve produced in the field will, most likely, be forgotten.  Unless I am a genius who contributes something extraordinarily new to the field (and there has yet to be any evidence of that), my work will be, if I am really, really lucky, read by the children of someone who happens to have kept an old copy of my book on their shelves. But I wouldn’t start placing bets on that. 

Yet, we have these copyright laws that, in the U.S.A., last 70 years after the death of the person who created the work.  Seventy years.  After death.  Think about it. 

If you are a writer, count me among those on the front lines willing to protect your copyright—it’ll help you pay the rent, feed the kids, maybe even get them through college.  Who knows, you may even be able to quit that famous day job.  And as the creator of your work, you should have absolute say on whether it can be used by other people, and you should be paid for that privilege—it’s your baby.  But here comes the sad part:  you will die.  I can guarantee it.  “Hey, my book will live on,” you say.  Tell me, how many writers can you name who died about 20 years ago, and whom you still read?  How about 30 years ago?  Or 40?

Let’s pick someone who died 40 years ago.  Absent an early death, a writer in this category was probably productive in the 1940s and 1950s.  Think of the thousands of books published in that period, and how few of them still matter.  But now I go to my parents’ shelf and find one of these beauties, and am totally wowed by what I’ve read.  After all, the reason my parents picked up this particular volume was because the author had something to say, had talent and perseverance, and produced fabulous, innovative stuff for his day.  I tell myself, “Wouldn’t it be great to reintroduce him to a new generation?” 

So, I find an editor friend who agrees that the work is wonderful, an excellent example of mid-20th century fiction, really, a gem, but tells me, essentially, “Fuhggeddaboudit.”  Why?  Because she’d have to (1) find his heirs, (2) get their permission, and (3) negotiate royalties.  The “finding the heirs” part alone is expensive and time consuming—if it is even successful.  Getting the heirs’ permission may or may not be a breeze, and negotiating reasonable royalties will depend on whether they have a realistic view of the literary marketplace.  Besides, why bother when there are all these talented contemporary writers with something to say who are producing fabulous, innovative stuff, just pounding down her door?

The real price being paid for our absurdly long copyright protections after death isn’t a few pennies to some heirs,  but obscurity for a large number of artists.  The true geniuses will not be forgotten—but the rest of us have been condemned to ever faster oblivion because no one will be allowed to use our work for 70 years after we die.  Immortality isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s one without matches.

As for the writer’s grandkids?  Well, they can still read her book . . . if the family kept a copy on their shelf.



A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. She was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children's Literature in both 2001 and 2002.

One of her stories has appeared in Ladybug magazine, and a middle-grade, magical-realism novel is scheduled for publication. Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec.

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"You Will Not Outlive Your Copyright (and Neither Will Your Novel)" copyright © November 2005 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004, 2005