Ah, the joys of copyright. Someone will have to refresh my memory as to why it’s useful to keep a book under copyright for eighty years — and who exactly is benefited by it — but the calendar helped me out, by rolling along slowly, and Luigi Serra’s Aquila is finally online. Mr. Serra, a conscientious art historian who covered the city of L’ Aquila in 142 pages, and 142 illustrations, died in 1940, and thru the blessings of copyright law, his work fell into the public domain yesterday.
Of course, nearly all the work of transcription and scanning those many photos, I did within a coupla months of the earthquake that so devastated the Abruzzese capital; and sat on my hands for a year and more, waiting for Mr. Serra to be sufficiently dead. It is a fine book though, even if one might have wished for a bit more synthesis here and there: a small chapter on the (sparse) Roman remains of Amiternum, two large chapters on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance forming the bulk of the work, a section on the Baroque period, and a coda on what was modern art in 1929, at least if you were conservative even then! in which our author shows himself to have loved the work of Teofilo Patini, who was new to me.
And oh yes — those photos, which some of us might sniff at in our age of 12-megapixel digital color at our fingertips, are now irreplaceable: much of what they document came crashing down in rubble last year.
To answer your rhetorical question about who benefits from the kind of copyright we now have – big corporations and some of the families of dead artists. The current copyright law was sponsored by Sonny Bono at the behest of Disney when they discovered that Mickey Mouse would soon lose copyright protection. Since corporations have money and the defenders of the public domain are supposed to be our elected representatives, but who mainly watch out for the owners of “property” the corporations got their way. Thus a large portion of what should be part of our common intellectual inheritance is called “intellectual property” and is owned by large corporate businesses for all most a century; i.e. fictional property owned by fictional people (corporations) who are granted a government protected monopoly.
But it’s even more pointless than that; I merely waited until it was public domain. There are lots of other things that might be shared, but are still under copyright, 100, even 120 years after they were written: so they don’t get shared (and no publishers, corporate or otherwise, get the slightest advantage from it) — after all, there’s a lot of competing stuff in the public domain.
And speaking from experience, 98% of the copyright heirs out there don’t even know they own any rights at all. Once one goes thru the hoops to find these people (grandchildren, nephews, assignees) they’re surprised to learn they own that copyright. In practice, although I certainly don’t recommend it, their material could be pirated and no one would be any the wiser.
Finally, even if one is willing to pay for rights, most copyright heirs cannot be found at all, or they are undeterminable. So there’s just no one to benefit; but, by obeying the law, we can’t republish: so it’s like a plowed field gone to the weeds again, and eventually the item winds up in the rigidly controlled stacks of libraries, where, often enough, it might just as well never have been published in the first place.
I agree that something like “published works are copyright for 20 years, renewable once or twice for a fee” would work better for everyone but international corporations and the heirs of famous dead artists. There is a famous speech by Macaulay on the subject.
I strongly disagree that libraries are rigidly controlled or that obscure books in libraries might as well never have been published! Public libraries are open to anyone, and most have interlibrary loan arrangements free or for a small fee. Most university libraries are accessible to anyone with a bachelor’s degree, and offer interlibrary loan to alumni free or for a small fee. If you live outside the US you often find that a book isn’t available at any academic library in Canada, but libraries don’t control how much funding they get.
Golly, maybe I should live somewhere other than Chicago. My nearest University library (Loyola University) has been, off and on, open to the public on individual application, and utterly closed to the public, unpredictably oscillating from one to the other. A much better University library is that of the University of Chicago: as the domestic partner of a member of the staff there (and thus an employee of the University), one would think I’d have access — but firmly not. I can get in the general reference room on the ground floor, but can’t so much as enter the rest of the huge library, to say nothing of borrow anything, other than as you say thru the cumbersome and dilatory method of Interlibrary Loan, for which I’ve been grateful, if just once.
And then just try prying loose from them so much as a copy of anything in a Manuscripts or Rare Books or even a Special Collections Room. A correspondent of mine, an American taxpayer, donated a 19c manuscript a few years ago, about ten or twenty pages long, to a relatively small library, but quite well-known and with a sterling reputation (you’ll forgive me for not further identifying it), which furthermore is owned and staffed by the U. S. Government. Unfortunately she absent-mindedly forgot to keep a xerox of the original, having nothing but her own transcript. She’s been trying for some time now, in connection with my site (which is how I come to be involved) to get that xerox; no success at all so far.
So my own experience inevitably colors my opinions….
I do agree that academic libraries aren’t well set up for people outside traditional academe, and I’ve heard that some connections of manuscripts and old books can get territorial. But my old university, for example, does have Special Collections open to public access, although photocopying depends on the condition of the book and the mood of the librarian http://library.uvic.ca/site/spcoll/about/
Alright, so some books remain in copyright because they make money — someone buys them, reads them, etc. What could possibly be the point of keeping copyright a book with no commercial potential at all? (I mean, come on, a great book, this, but we’re not talking about *cashflow* here).
Good point. I’m normally not chauvinistic about how much better we do things in America, but our old system answered these concerns pretty nicely, whether intentionally or otherwise: a renewal was required at the end of a reasonable term (28 years), else the item fell into the public domain. If a book made tons of money for its copyright holder, they’d renew. Most people didn’t: 85% of copyrights were not renewed.
In requiring registration and renewal, the system also had an excellent feature: it was much easier to track down the owner of the copyright. The current international system, to which the United States finally caved in, requires nothing: as a result, try finding the copyright owner 25 years later! even to pay them good money for permission to reprint, and even small publishing houses — let alone the self-publishing that is now picking up steam because of modern technology: you can’t find ’em….
The one flaw of the old American system was that if I wrote something when I was 20 and lived to be 77, it would be public domain — in my own old age when I might need the money. It’s a flaw easily fixed: Copyright could be for a 20-year term renewable every 20 years during the life of the author, and not afterwards. (No reason at all that someone’s grandchildren should fatten off the rest of us.) For corporate works, say 50 years non-renewable.
But as has been brought up, there are powerful interests (like the Mouse House) which won’t find this palatable; the greater social good of spreading information suffers.
I’m afraid that my experience of libraries is closer to Bill’s than to Sean’s. I can only get access to the library of the University where I graduated (twice), and at which I am employed (on and off), on payment of an annual fee approximating to one day’s salary. But who can put a price on education? 😉