Monday, May 14, 2018

How copyright law hides work like Zora Neale Hurston’s new book from the public; The Washington Post, May 7, 2018

Ted Genoways, The Washington Post; How copyright law hides work like Zora Neale Hurston’s new book from the public

"Now, according to the Vulture introduction, the Zora Neale Hurston Trust has new representation, interested in getting unpublished works into print and monetizing those archives. That’s great, from a reader’s perspective, but it also reveals a larger problem where scholarship of literature between World War I and II is concerned. It’s mostly due to the Walt Disney Co.’s efforts to protect ownership of a certain cartoon mouse. Over the years, the company has successfully worked to extend copyright restrictions far beyond the limits ever intended by the original authors of America’s intellectual property laws. Under the original Copyright Act of 1790, a work could be protected for 14 years, renewable for another 14-year term if the work’s author was still alive. In time, the maximum copyright grew from 28 years to 56 years and then to 75 years. In 1998, Sonny Bono championed an extension that would protect works created after 1978 for 70 years after the death of the author and the copyright of works created after 1922 to as long as 120 years.

This worked out great for Disney — which, not coincidentally, was founded in 1923 — but less so for the reputations of authors who produced important work between the 1920s and 1950s. Because copyright law became such a tangle, many of these works have truly languished. Here, Hurston is the rule rather than the exception. I have a file that I’ve kept over the years of significant unpublished works by well-known writers from the era: William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson and Weldon Kees, among others. The works aren’t really “lost,” of course, but they are tied up in a legal limbo. Because of the literary reputations of those writers, their unpublished works will eventually see the light of day — whenever their heirs decide that the royalties are spreading a little too thin and there’s money to be made from new works. But other important writers who are little-known or unknown will remain so because they don’t have easily identifiable heirs — or, worse, because self-interested, or even uninterested executors, control their estates."

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