For fifty-five years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the only novel that Harper Lee published. It was successful enough that she simply didn’t need to publish another one. That one book, published 55 years ago, has kept her comfortable for the rest of her life. But it turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird was actually the second novel that Harper Lee wrote—and now HarperCollins is going to publish the first one, Go Set a Watchman. It is scheduled for release July 2015.
Lee explains that when she first wrote Go Set a Watchman, her editor was intrigued by childhood flashbacks of the adult character Scout in that novel, and convinced her to write another book about that character’s childhood. That book is what became To Kill a Mockingbird. The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman had been misplaced, and Lee had thought it lost for good until her lawyer rediscovered it in 2014.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been called “a fine example of how copyright is failing us all.” Blogger Mike Taylor wrote last year:
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Under the earliest US copyright law, which had a term of 14 years, it would have gone into the public domain in 1974 unless Lee took steps to renew that copyright for another 14 years — something she would have been able to do just once. That would have allowed it to stay in copyright until 1988. In other words, even had its copyright been renewed, To Kill a Mockingbird would now have been in the public domain for more than a quarter of a century.
Instead, it’s remained in copyright (and will remain so for at least another 70 years). So royalties have continued to flow. It’s perhaps largely for this reason that Harper Lee never got around to completing another book — Mockingbird became her meal-ticket for life. In short, in this case copyright law did the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it removed the incentive to create more works.
Of course, given that the manuscript had been lost and was only just rediscovered, shorter copyright terms wouldn’t have gotten it published any sooner. But they might have given Lee the incentive to write something else. Given how well her first book has lasted, who knows what other amazing works might have flowed from her pen if she had to write them to put bread on the table?