Over at the Los Angeles Times, columnist Michael Hiltzik writes about the withdrawal of mass-market rights to a classic:
The latest chapter in the saga has just been written. Following the author’s death at the age of 89 on Feb. 19, the Harper Lee estate has eliminated the mass-market edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” List-priced at $8.99 by its publisher Hachette Book Group (but available for as little as five dollars and change), this is the edition through which a couple of generations of schoolchildren first encountered the book in class–and often encountered the joys of reading for the first time.
According to a March 4 notice issued by Hachette to booksellers and reported by the New Republic, permission for the mass-market edition has been withdrawn by the novel’s publisher, HarperCollins. (HarperCollins also brought out “Go Set a Watchman.”) Hachette can sell off its remaining copies, which it’s doing at a further discount, but henceforth “Mockingbird” will be available chiefly in a HarperCollins trade paperback edition, which lists for $14.99.
Even believers in strong copyright protections will concede that enforcement of copyright – like any other claim against others’ actions (in this case, others’ printing of a novel) – may be contrary to a copyright holder or author’s interest. Hitzlik continues:
Yet as we can see from the extinction of the mass-market paperback of “Mockingbird,” such extensions stifle the dissemination of creative works rather than encourage it. The squabble over the copyright to Anne Frank’s diaries, which we reported on here, also illustrates how the grip of copyright law leaves the control of creative works in the hands of people who may not share the desires of the works’ creators. Harper Lee has passed on, Anne Frank is long gone, and Walt Disney is represented in the marketplace by a corporation that is hopelessly far removed from his artistic and even his business creation.
I’ll concede that it’s hard to see how Harper Lee would have wanted fewer people to read her books, but that is the likely consequence of the cancellation of the mass-market edition.
The implication, I think, is that copyright should be limited to the original author’s life, at the very most.
That would take us back to the copyright regime before 1976, before life-plus copyright terms.
There are few reasons to go back to 1976 (Bicentennial notwithstanding), but this may be one of those few.