Once again we’ve gotten a New Year’s gift of a bunch of copyright works entering the public domain. TeleRead has a piece telling of some new domain arrivals.

On NPR’s Morning Edition there was a story today of Michael Farris Smith who in 2015 had written a novel, Nick, about the life of Nick Calloway. Calloway is the fairly shadowy narrator of The Great Gatsby. At that time Mr Smith was told by his publisher that they couldn’t publish the book until 2021 because The Great Gatsby was still in copyright.

Obviously Nick’s life cannot have featured in Fitzgerald’s novel. Presumably he meets and interacts with Jay Gatsby in Mr Smith’s book, but we know that there is in theory no copyright in characters. Cynics might think that maybe the publisher was just taking the easy way out without having to tell the author that his novel was no good! But this theory is belied by the fact that Little, Brown have announced Nick for publication on this very day.Maybe their hesitation was a preemptive legal funk: we know that whatever we believe about the copyright law, suits are brought to keep in line authors and publishers with the temerity to write about the further adventures of character A, B, or C. See for instance Holmes run, and Derivative works. These sorts of books are of course closely related to fan-fiction, which enjoys a vigorous online life.

What should we think about the term of copyright? I suspect we can all agree that it’s too long. Just what the length of the term is varies in a pretty crazy way. Looking forward, 70 years after the death of author is the measure in the USA. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 put a delay onto public-domain-ification of many works, presumably in an attempt eventually to get terms established in the past under various differing rules into uniform step. Fitzgerald died in 1940, so 70 years later would have taken us to 2010; but at that time we were not putting works into the public domain. The Sonny Bono Act gave copyright works published with a copyright notice and with a copyright renewal, which had previously had a terms of 75 years since publication, another 20 more years, giving The Great Gatsby a total of 95 years copyright protection. (Gatsby was published in 1925; + 75 = 2000, = 20 = 2020.) Cornell has an exhaustive reference site for those who need to know.

Faced with the “problem” of expiring copyrights some publishers, Cambridge University Press springs to mind, have aimed to reestablish copyright by arranging for a scholarly revision of the text of classic works. Thus we published a new text of The Great Gatsby in 1991 (we redid D. H. Lawrence the decade before). The copyright notice reads

Copyright © 1991 by Eleanor Lanahan, Matthew J. Bruccoli and

Samuel J. Lanahan as Trustees under Agreement dated July 3, 1975

Created by Frances Scott Fitzgerald Smith.

Eleanor Lanahan is the daughter of Samuel J. Lanahan and Scottie, daughter of Scott and Zelda. Scottie, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, remarried Grove Smith. Make of this © notice what you will. Not sure what “Created by” refers to — is it “Agreement”? Presumably it’s not the text — which was edited by Professor Bruccoli, and do remember, actually written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As responsibility ballast we also have Fredson Bowers as Textual Consultant. Now I’ve no intention of comparing the CUP text against the Scribner version line by line — there must presumably be some differences. One can of course reasonably wonder what the value of an edited “correct” text is in the face of a freely available one in the form the author allowed to be published during his lifetime. A copyright is only valuable in proportion to your willingness to mount lawsuits in order to protect it.