Editorial: A Gift Outright of Literary Treasures — to Be Savored, or Sullied

  • Robert Frost in a 1941 photograh. (Library of Congress photograph)

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The dawn of 2019 brought exhilarating news to the reading public. Exhilarating, and depressing, too. But first the exhilarating.

On Jan. 1, a treasure trove of classic literature, along with other artistic works, entered the public domain as copyright protections expired. Included are works by authors such as Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Frost. This paves the way for a variety of new, and potentially cheaper, editions that can serve to introduce classics to a new generation of readers and to reacquaint an older cohort with valuable works they may have neglected over the years. Best of all, each January for many years to come promises to yield a flood of older works newly freed from the narrow channels of copyright.

“Consumers and readers are definitely going to benefit from this,” Imke Reimers, a Northeastern University professor who studies the impact of copyright law, told The New York Times.

Why now? As so often in American life, the answer begins with the Constitution. Section 8 of Article 1 provides Congress with the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The first Copyright Act in the United States was passed in 1790, with a maximum term of 28 years.

And as also so often in American life, a simple idea evolved over the years into a system described as “mind-numbingly complex” by the Times and “worse than the tax code” by Rebecca Tushnet, an expert in intellectual property at Harvard Law School.

The current situation arises because legislation Congress passed in 1998 retroactively extended copyright protection by 20 years — from 75 to 95 years after publication — for works published between 1923 and 1977. That protection expired this January for works published in 1923 and will lapse with each succeeding year for works published 95 years earlier.

Of course, the original publishers of these works and the literary estates of the authors stand to lose a reliable revenue stream, but there’s also the possibility that the buzz created by the release of new editions will reinvigorate the market for these works.

Publishers have been looking forward to this moment for years. Vintage Classics, for instance, intends to publish a new edition of a work that speaks directly to the heart of New England, Robert Frost’s New Hampshire. The Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems, which includes such favorites as Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Good-by and Keep Cold and Nothing Gold Can Stay, will reappear with the original woodcuts in place. Nowhere perhaps is Frost’s aspiration for his art more completely realized. These poems do indeed “begin in delight and end in wisdom.”

So what about this otherwise happy situation could elicit depression? Well, the serpent in this reader’s paradise is that with the end of copyright also comes the end of creative control over the material. It can be used in any way people see fit. If the internet experience is any guide, this newfound freedom will be exploited by many — not for its highest and best use, but for its lowest and worst.

Steve Hendrix of The Washington Post anticipated this in a story that appeared in Saturday’s Close-Up section of the Valley News, which honored the four “spare, musical and haunting” stanzas of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening before going on to write that now that these lines are beyond the reach of copyright law, “anyone can emblazon them anywhere, from inspirational posters to beach towels.” He notes that, “FedEx can paint ‘Miles to go’ on its trucks,” and that “ ‘Easy wind and downy flake’ would make a good line of dryer sheets and laundry soap.”

Frost biographer Jay Parini, who teaches at Middlebury College, is by no means alarmed. “I think it’s a wonderful thing,” he told Hendrix. “I hope it’s on mugs and T-shirts everywhere.” But anyone who has suffered through a high school graduation speaker’s misinterpretation of The Road Not Taken may fail to muster much enthusiasm about the severing of poetic line from context.

On the other hand, maybe that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to discover, or rediscover, literature that in the end arrives at what Frost called “a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but ... a momentary stay against confusion.”