Copyright heirs: Greedsters or guardians?

What’s it like to be a copyright heir? In the Financial Times, Rachel Keeler writes about the descendants of James Joyce (image), Roald Dahl, Ian Flemming and others. Excerpt:

image For lovers and scholars of the 20th-century novel, Stephen Joyce has become something of a literary villain. The grandson and sole living heir of James Joyce, the Irish author and poet, has spent the past 17 years fiercely guarding his family’s estate through a series of court battles with those brave enough to try to use copyrighted Joyce documents.

Stephen’s notoriously acerbic dealings are held up by many who question the role of intellectual property law in literary estate management. Many legal jurisdictions grant automatic copyright on artistic works to their creators for 70 years after death. Fans often accuse estate heirs of abusing that right to hoard wealth and hamper access to classic literature.

But for many heirs, inheriting a family copyright has little to do with secrecy or greed. It is the chance to reinvent old works for new countries, demographics and media, to explore philanthropy and, above all, perpetuate a legacy.

So how do you feel about the above? I’m of mixed mind here. Fourteen-year terms, which some want, are too short; Bono-ized terms, too long. And as for the heirs’ feelings toward their legacies, I suspect they vary all over the place. Some heirs may truly cherish the literary works. Others may see masterpieces in an unsentimental, pecuniary way—as nothing more than property to be exploited to the hilt: just variants of family stores or apartment buildings.

One interesting issue is the extent to which the heirs inherit something along with the literary estates: talent. Do long copyright terms help subsidize the creation of literature? I’m skeptical. But you never know. Also, If the line between genius and madness is thin, what about the heirs who inherit only the latter? Better that some money be around to help them live with those parts of their legacies?

About David Rothman (6820 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

17 Comments on Copyright heirs: Greedsters or guardians?

  1. I’m in favour of changing to a mostly fixed length copyright. 50 years from publication seems ample. I’d even be happy with 50 years from publication or life of author, whichever is longer.

    The current EU/US length of lifetime+70 is just far too long.

    But I don’t expect to see such a change

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. The scary thing about long terms is that their advocates really would like them to last FOREVER. Here in the States, I’d be happy with a pre-Bono rollback that STAYED that way.


  3. There are only 3 logically-defensible terms of copyright monopoly: none, lifetime of author, and forever. All other terms are arbitrary. 14 years or 15? 27 or 75? Arbitrary.

    It’s significant, isn’t it, that at the end of the 18th century, it took a lot longer to disseminate works, and yet 14 years was (arbitrarily) chosen. Today a text can be disseminated globally with a click of the mouse; this implies that a shorter term would be the equivalent, arbitrary, length.

    A few years back, William Wyler’s heirs successfully sued to alter unilaterally the terms of his contract with MGM over ‘Ben-Hur’ which had been capped, for tax reasons, at something like $50K/year. But with VHS and then DVD sales, the movie was bringing in so much more than that, the heirs felt cheated. Of course, this results in all the wonderful movies produced and directed by the Wyler heirs!

    About the only example where inheriting literary rights has led to more creative works (that I’m aware of) is Christopher Tolkien’s handling of his dad’s papers, drafts, notes, texts. But even in this case, almost all the physical papers had been sold (by JRR himself) to a university where scholars could have done a lot of the same work if the rights had lapsed. On the other hand, Christopher had a good incentive to do this work for years and years, and had special knowledge to help him of his father’s handwriting, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, and so on; Christopher is an academic himself, and I can’t imagine anybody else doing a better or more thorough job.

    The ‘Winchester MS’ of Malory’s Arthurian tales is out of copyright, for example, and nobody has taken up Vinaver to produce a more widely-accessible version.

    I agree with Paul Durrant that a fixed term is best, at whatever (arbitrary) length. It helps the rest of the world know, from the date of publication, when any given work is to return to the public domain.

  4. I am not sure there are only three logically defensible terms of copyright.. and I am sure that no matter how many there are, forever is not one of the logically definsble terms.

    If we recall, copyright and patent law was devised to serve a very specific purpose; it provides an incentive for people to create and introduce new work to the public. Ultimately, though it recognizes that such work ultimately belongs in the public domain where it can be used to inspire other creative works.

    Therefore, the proper term of copyright is one that will maximize the production and publication of artistic works. A term that is too long will prevent others from perhaps retelling the story in a more effective way than the original (Remember Shakespeare was not the first author to write a play on Hamlet) or even in a different medium. A term that is too short will of course not provide a significant incentive for publication.

    My own thoughts on the matter are as follows: Life of the author or 20 years, whichever is longer seems like a more than reasonable term to me. Prior to e-books I would have also said 10 years after a book is no longer in print. Corporate copyrights should be capped at 50 years maximum and should the company die, they immediately enter the public domain.


  5. If we went with lifetime of the author, as a publisher, I’d be inclined to buy only younger authors. One thing I don’t want to do is spend months editing some elderly person’s manuscript into a polished gem–only to have it go into the public domain the day after I publish because my author passed. I know that sounds cynical, but authors aren’t the only people who invest in books.

    Rob Preece

  6. The sad thing is that this has all been discussed in the past (& I mean back in the 19th Century, not the just recent past!) and arguments successfully made that longer time periods don’t produce proportionate benefits to their harm, and that certain periods are better than uncertain periods.

    But for every argument that’s been won, some deal has been done later, and we’ve ended up with ridiculously long, ridiculously uncertain copyright lengths. Why, a copyright might now last as long as 140 years!

  7. <>

    Ideas and plots can’t be copyrighted so anyone can take another author’s ideas and make them their own as long as they don’t use the words or follow the structure of the work too closely.

    As a writer, I’d like to see my family earn income after I die, and my will gives specific control over my works to someone who understands the business and who will watch over whatever legacy I leave behind.

    Public domain offers none of that for a writer or her family.

    For those who aren’t writers, ask yourself this– If this were my house or my business instead of someone else’s books, would I want strangers to gain from this and my family to have nothing when I die?

  8. TheRealBillC // March 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm //

    When I die (as with most people) my heirs get to divide up what I have at that time, they don’t get to keep getting something from me for another 50 years – and I wouldn’t want them to. Let them make their own way in the world. I’d like to see my family EARN income after I die too, but from honest hard work. Going to the mailbox to pick up a check is not earning and clearly produces nothing.

  9. I fail to see how a copyright term of 70 years after the death of the author hurts anyone. Why shouldn’t an author have a legacy to bequeath heirs? The work will enter the public domain in due time. Although the commercial value of most literary works fades with time, some retain substantial value for decades. Why should the author’s heirs not benefit from the creation of their ancestor? The purpose of copyright is to give an author a chance to benefit from his or her efforts. Sometime this includes the opportunity for the author’s heirs to benefit. People leave businesses and investments to their heirs that produce income far into the future. What’s so different about written works that people think they should not be allowed to produce dividends for the author’s heirs?

  10. I see some people here convinced that some texts are of such imperishable literary merit and financial possibility that OF COURSE all the rights should go to the author’s descendants.

    Ha! Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. This crap may have a momentary value, when it is fresh, hot, steaming crap, but it’s worth nothing when it’s old cold crap. If you protect the old cold crap with copyright, no one will want to reprint it (for pay) and it will turn into acidified pages, crumble, and die. If it is put into the public domain, it can be digitized, saved, and possibly gain new readers a hundred years down the road. Or at least be of some use to scholars.

    If authors and their families are convinced that they’re sitting on a copyright goldmine, let them do some work to register it. We need to go back to copyright renewals. Say, copyright without registration for the first 5 years, after that registration required, then renewals. Furthermore, only renewals made during the author’s lifetime should be free. After that, fees. The fees should increase over time. Exponentially. Let’s see if Disney wants to pay $20M per year to renew Mickey Mouse :)

  11. Logan Kennelly // March 27, 2009 at 7:49 pm //

    Zora nails my beliefs perfectly. The reason that copyright shouldn’t last forever minus a day is that it results in the loss of most of our culture. Additionally, if the work is worth something, then it is worth someone re-registering the copyright and paying a fee to do so.

    This loss of culture is particularly egregious in the realm of electronic media. Does anyone seriously believe that we would be able to access (or even find) the video games of the 1980s in 2070 if it weren’t for rampant copyright violation?

    How about It’s A Wonderful Life, a film that would probably be all but forgotten if it weren’t for the lapse of copyright? (A situation which has since been remedied…)

    The difference between inheriting a business and inheriting a collection of thoughts? The business continues to contribute and add to society (if it is successful) while the thoughts sitting in a locked box somewhere do not.

  12. gnawingonfoot // March 29, 2009 at 10:01 pm //

    It’s really easy not to care, but equally easy to get frustrated. The latest issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction reprinted Thomas M. Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster,” but only in the printed versions of the magazine. Digital subscribers like me got shafted because the editors couldn’t get any digital distribution rights to the story from whoever is currently in control of Tom’s works. Stuff like this makes me feel nobody should be able to limit an author’s publication beyond the author’s death.

  13. My daughter writes and she has agreed to take my pseudonym in the event of my death. My intellectual rights will be left to my heirs and they are instructed to do with them as they will.

    My children will renew copyrights in the event of my death and will renew them in their and their children’s names which will effectively tie them up for at least 60 – 70 years after I expire anyway.

    If you will your intellectual property and your heirs wish to keep the copyright, it is in their best interest to reregister but there should be a period of years after an author’s death to protect the rights because I’m sure they won’t be thinking of renewing copyrights on any intellectual property for some time after the original copyright holder’s death.

    The concept of “The life of the author” is ridiculous because it should give heirs the time to find out they ARE heirs to the work and give them a chance to oh, say, GROW UP before the work is thrust into the public domain. I would think a period of twenty-five years after the author’s death is the LEAST that is needed. It gives an infant the opportunity to grow up and, hopefully, earn enough money to buy the copyrights. I have written and published over thirty books and it isn’t cheap to buy the rights. It would be insane to make a child come up with the money to renew copyrights. Not all authors have significant others and no one can know if a guardian would consider renewing copyrights as important as the child or children would.

    If the heir or heirs choose not to renew, then the work should fall into the public domain but not before.

    Also, there should not be a renewal fee for each individual work. If there was a previous copyright they should be able to renew the copyrights less expensively than if they were registering it for the first time. If we’re taking time away from the rights, the least we can do is reduce the fees to reregister previously protected works.

    Anyone who feels they should have the “right” to MY intellectual property for free just because I died can just kiss my lilly white…A! I dreamed it up. I wrote it and by God my children should be able to benefit from it after I’m gone.

    If it’s crap like someone else suggested, then there is no reason to have it on the public domain because hey, apparently it’s crap and no one should want it anyway.

    Public domain is only a way for the pirates and everyone else who would download it to get something for nothing. If you want it. PAY FOR IT!

  14. What ever happened to Holden Caulfield? We’ll never know because of copyright. The only reason the U.S. is authorized to grant these monopolies is to promote the progress of science and useful arts. Salinger never had to tell us what happened to his character because he could sit on his ass and collect checks for the rest of his life! How is this promoting the arts?

    There is only statutory monopoly, intellectual property is a lie! An idea is neither chattel or real property and an author has no natural right to its exclusive use. Furthermore, copyright is not intended to secure for authors a perpetual stream of income, it is only intended to encourage them to publish in the first place.

    It is the hight of arrogance, these authors who feel they have built the Panama Canal and are now entitled to collect rents for the next hundred years.

  15. What you fail to understand (or possibly admit), Evan, is that many authors are motivated by Salinger’s success. So what if we never learn what happened to Holden, JK Rowling, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and thousands of others are busy creating new works… in hopes that they may achieve some financial success. Eliminate copyright law and no publisher can afford to take a chance on an author, no film producer will ever make an investment, no songwriter will pitch a song to a country-western talent.

    As for intellectual property being ‘only’ a statutory monopoly, all property is a statutory monopoly. What else keeps someone from building an apartment in my back yard, or moving into my house while I’m out shopping…it’s the law.

    In the 21st century, intellectual property is a lot more important than hunks of real estate, bricks of gold, or factories.

    Rob Preece

  16. Copyright is there to promote creativity by protecting the author of that creativity by way of the power of the State.
    It is, in my opinion, grossly inappropriate for the State to have it’s power used in what is essentially an enormous greed fest of copyright lasting more than a nominal period past the death of the author. The Author is dead, so there is no interest by the State in protecting the work. It is an utter absurdity that the children and descendants of a creative author are handed a 70 year income by the grace of the State for doing absolutely nothing except leach off the creativity of their ancestor.

    I believe that a period of 5 years after the death of an author is the absolute maximum period that copyright should last, and it should be restricted to royalty income only, and not the ability to control the publishing. Only the royalty.

  17. Bob, well said!

    Howard, I agree. Lifetime, or life plus 5 years royalty only makes far more sense than the notion of “my life plus a few decades of the kids’ lives” — next we’ll be hearing that grandkids are being treated unfairly.

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