Twenty-five years ago, I read a science fiction short story called Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson. And for twenty-five years, this story has popped into my head whenever I hear news of lawsuits for copyright infringement.
Melancholy Elephants is a good story. It won the Hugo in 1983. But more than that, it is an eloquent argument that copyright duration should be limited, not for the benefit of those who wish to exploit the work of others, but for the long-term good of the artistic community.
The story concerns a battle over a bill that would extend copyright forever. The protagonist is the wife of a deceased musical composer. As such, she has a literal investment in her husband’s work. Yet she is a passionate opponent of this bill. Here is the heart of her argument:
Don’t you see what perpetual copyright implies? It is perpetual racial memory! That bill will give the human race an elephant’s memory. Have you ever seen a cheerful elephant?
She explains that even though it seems there are infinitely many combinations of notes, key signatures, rhythms, colors, textures, shapes, and words, there are in fact limits. Here’s my favorite quotation from the story:
“…it comes down to a kind of innate failure of mathematical intuition, common to most humans. We tend to confuse any sufficiently high number with infinity.”
Melancholy Elephantsis set in a future where humankind has spilled out of the planet and spread through the solar system. With so many people, enough music is being written that composers struggle to write pieces that can be considered original. The protagonist argues that perpetual copyright would amount to cultural suicide.
Today’s publishing industry is in a state of flux. Publishers, agents, and authors battle for rights, hoping to lock up them up for as long as possible. I’ve even heard rumblings of reexamining copyright laws, perhaps extending them “in perpetuity.” Might today’s artistic community inadvertently undermine the community of the future? Already, it’s hard to create original work that will not be sneered at for being “derivative.”
This all sounds farfetched, I know. And besides, the crisis (if there is one) will peak in the future. It probably won’t affect us personally.
Or will it? There’s another side to the copyright issue.
I wanted to infuse my novel with a sense of traditional hobo culture. Since Woody Guthrie is the quintessential hobo poet, it seemed natural to include snippets of his lyrics in appropriate places (with attribution, of course). I didn’t worry about copyright. My publisher would take care of that for me. Then I decided to go indie, and I became the publisher. I looked up the copyright status of Guthrie’s lyrics and found a form for licensing lyrics.
I’m not a copyright expert and didn’t want to pay to hire one. The way I saw it, I could (1) file a request to license the lyrics, risking a long wait for an answer that might include a request for payment for their use, (2) use the lyrics without licensing and risk a lawsuit, or (3) drop the lyrics altogether. The safest route was to drop the lyrics and that is what I did.
It didn’t really hurt my novel. But it might have hurt Woody Guthrie.
Suppose I included the lyrics and my book went viral. Thousands of people would be exposed to samples of Woody Guthrie’s work. Folks who’d never heard of him might be intrigued and look him up. They might buy his recordings and sheet music, maybe even perform his music for others. He might become known to a new generation of fans—without costing Woody Guthrie Publications (Woody’s been dead 45 years) a penny.
Instead, my readers will see only his name in a blink line.
My daughter is a singer. So far, she performs the work of others, but she cannot record their music for sale unless she pays for licensing. In Canada, laws are being made that will prevent her from performing copyrighted music in any public setting unless she pays a fee. She’s fourteen. If she had a real gig, she might get $50. Guess what—she’s now learning to write her own music instead of perpetuating the work of people like Jewel, U2, and Florence and the Machine.
This doesn’t really hurt my daughter. But I would argue that it hurts the others—if only a tiny bit. The older and more obscure the copyrighted music the more it hurts the original composition to not be performed.
As much as the idea of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes me cringe, might this book inspire people to read Jane Austen’s original book? Might Peter and the Starcatchers inspire kids to read the original Peter Pan?
I asked my daughter, “Would you rather have your songs locked up with copyright for decades after your death so only people with money can record them, or do you want them spread as wide as possible?”
“Spread as wide as possible,” she said in a tone that called me an idiot for asking.
No artist wants to be forgotten.