John Steinbeck & the Cost of Centurial Copyright Protection

John Steinbeck passed away in 1968, leaving behind a litigious set of heirs who have fought over the right to control his literary work for decades. The most recent iteration of this legal battle, this time between Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law and Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, ended with a jury award of $13.15 million to the stepdaughter.

Here’s the backstory:

  • Through his will, Steinbeck left ownership of the copyrights he renewed in his lifetime to his wife and a $50,000 trust to each of his two sons (from a previous marriage).
  • By law, Steinbeck’s wife as well as his sons were entitled to royalty payments for the works renewed after his death (the law required publication/registration and permitted renewal back then; it’s different now).
  • A 1983 settlement agreement increased the sons’ share of the royalty payments in exchange for giving Steinbeck’s wife control over the exploitation of the copyright (which means the right to license the work to third parties, turning it into royalty-generating movies, spin-offs, etc).
  • Steinbeck’s wife died in 2003, leaving ownership/control of the copyrights to her heirs, including Steinbeck’s step-daughter.

In the most recent litigation, the step-daughter alleged that the son and daughter-in-law thwarted attempts to turn Steinbeck’s works into royalty-generating projects, including new movies (projects that purportedly interested Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence).

The jury sided with the step-daughter, and the daughter-in-law has stated she will appeal. After that, let’s hope the battle over the copyrights to Steinbeck’s work will finally come to an end. Unfortunately, it’s possible that new legal issues will arise among the heirs until John Steinbeck’s work falls into the public domain, a date that the law has pushed back numerous times since Steinbeck’s death.

Based on the law at the time Steinbeck wrote his novels, when authors were entitled to two consecutive 28-year-terms of copyright protection (56 years total), his books would be in the public domain by now. However, the 1976 amendments to the Copyright Act changed the copyright period for Steinbeck’s novels to 75 years. Then, in 1998, for works still within the 75-year-period, amendments to the law extended copyright protection by another twenty years. The extension was challenged as unconstitutional but, in 2003, the Supreme Court upheld it 7-2 in Eldred v. Ashcroft. The result is 95 years–nearly a century–of copyright protection.

Think of all the judicial resources our courts would’ve saved had Steinbeck’s works entered the public domain after 56 years instead of 95? Think of all the derivative works–the retellings, the new movies–we could’ve enjoyed by now?

Oppressively long copyright protection does nothing more than stifle creative derivative works and enrich heirs who often have merely a tangential relationship to the person who created the work. As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent in Eldred:

[A]ny remaining monetary incentive is diminished dramatically by the fact that the relevant royalties will not arrive until 75 years or more into the future, when, not the author, but distant heirs, or shareholders in a successor corporation, will receive them. … What potential Shakespeare, Wharton, or Hemingway would be moved by such a sum? What monetarily motivated Melville would not realize that he could do better for his grandchildren by putting a few dollars into an interest-bearing bank account?

With Steinbeck’s books, we may finally see more derivative projects develop, but only if the creators of those projects are willing and able to pay the price Steinbeck’s wife’s heirs want for it.

Broadening Our Worldview: Sri Lankan Literature

sri-lanka

On February 4th, Sri Lanka celebrated 69 years of independence from the British Empire. Sri Lanka is my mother’s homeland, but I grew up in the United States, where many people are incapable of finding Sri Lanka on the globe. The fact that Americans know so little about the world is sad. This ignorance explains, at least in part, why a large percentage (though not a majority) of American voters felt comfortable electing a xenophobic man for President (and xenophobia is only one of a long list of hateful traits this man exhibits proudly).

If more Americans made an effort to learn about the rest of the world, the United States would be a better country than it is right now. Not everyone has the resources to travel, but books are a wonderful way to broaden our worldview. I think that is particularly true of books for younger readers, who aren’t so entrenched in their views already.

To learn more about Sri Lanka, check out Cinderzena’s list of Sri Lankan literature (and bloggers!). As she explains:

I decided to create a list of some of the best, spell binding and intriguing Lankan literature written in English. Of course there are so many more wonderful masterpieces in both Sinhala and Tamil (which are both official languages of the country) but translations of them are also widely available. I tried my best to chose from a wide range of genres including translations.

Cinderzena was kind enough to include Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins. We are Sri Lankan-American (I am half Sri Lankan; my Dad’s side is predominantly Irish with a mix of Sioux, African, and Basque). The novel was a way of exploring our identity as we grapple with what remains of our Sri Lankan heritage while we live thousands of miles away from our mother country.

______________________________________________________

anusha-front-cover-smallerTo learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

Two Lovely Berries (New Adult Fiction): “A lovely, intelligent, and honest novel”

Two Lovely Berries by AM BlairWhen I started this blog, I hoped it would make me more comfortable sharing my writing with others. At the time, my perfectionism and self-consciousness always stopped me from completing my creative projects.* Four years later, I’ve published two novels, and I’m thrilled and thankful whenever I learn that someone has read them.

For my 400th blog post, I am delighted to share Stephanie’s review of Two Lovely Berries on Eclectic Scribe (recommended to her by Monika of Lovely Bookshelf):

This is a lovely, intelligent, and honest novel about coming of age, family relationships, and the truths — and lies — that hold families together. It also illuminates how easy it is to slip into disturbingly familiar family patterns and the moment one chooses to take a different path. I enjoyed living in Nora’s head, and it kept me up late at night, wanting to read one page… or one more chapter.

Click here for the entire review on Eclectic Scribe.

___________________________________________

*See Perfectionism and Publishing.

**For more background on Two Lovely Berries, see Freshly Pressed & Freshly Published.

Do You Want Your Diaries Published?

AEE 6

I would burn my diaries if I knew where they were. At some point, while moving between Philadelphia and Boston, I lost the multi-volume compilation of my private childhood thoughts. Maybe they’re disintegrating in a landfill somewhere along I-95. Preferably, someone recycled them without ever peeking between the covers. More likely, though, they’re stuffed into boxes in my basement or our storage facility, waiting for my children to find them someday and learn how silly their mother once was.*

I don’t know why I’m self-conscious about who I was when I wrote those diaries, which was between grades two and twelve.

I also don’t know why I started keeping a diary in the first place. It may have been a reaction to the impotence of childhood, a time when I wanted adults to take my opinions more seriously than they often did. Somehow, writing my thoughts down made them seem more important.

Recently, author and diarist Elisa Segrave wrote about “the pleasure of keeping — and rereading — diaries.” She touches on the reasons compulsive diarists record their daily experiences. Some want their privacy while also wanting their “thoughts to be appreciated.”

To the extent I wanted others to appreciate the thoughts in my diaries, I wouldn’t have wanted that to happen in my lifetime (or even shortly thereafter, contrary to my typical aversion to “dead hand control”). Diaries are a vital source of historical information, though I doubt my childish musings on pop culture, boys, and other insignificant topics will provide future historians with much insight. My children are probably the only people who will ever find any reason to read them.

Segrave found and read her mother’s diaries as her mother was dying from Alzheimer’s. The journals her mother wrote between 1930 and 1950 gave Segrave a window into a woman who was otherwise uncommunicative with her children after a family tragedy.

Similarly, in Amelia Elkins Elkins, the recently deceased matriarch of the Elkins family comes alive through the diaries her daughter finds in Woodlynne Hall’s dusty, ten-thousand volume library. The diaries shed light on Gladys’s demise and on her relationship with her conceited, silly husband, a re-imagined version of the patriarch in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The revelations could tear the family apart.

Much to her daughter Amelia’s dismay, the diaries become a potential piece of evidence in the lawsuit stemming from Gladys’s death. Grappling with the possibility of her mother’s diaries becoming part of the public record of a trial, Amelia begs their lawyers to find a way to prevent the opposition from having them:

“…These are her private thoughts. Even I wasn’t supposed to read them.” That a diary could be read was always a risk; perhaps that was part of the appeal to some who dared to share their thoughts on paper.

So maybe Gladys wouldn’t have minded. I would. How about you?

________________

*These days, I have the maturity to keep that silliness to myself. 😉

Love or Money? A Question for English Majors and/or Future Lawyers

TCS with Quote and Line

[WordPress has reminded me that it’s my blog’s anniversary! I set it up on June 9, 2012, and my first true post was on June 10th. It’s hard to believe that four years has gone by so fast. Happy Birthday, The Misfortune of Knowing! Okay, back to the post:]

 

In my comments on Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, I discussed Sugar’s graduation speech to a class of writers, a group tired of being told that “being an English major prepares you for law school.” Instead of that typical advice, she said:

You’re going to be all right. And [] not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way. […]

You have to do what you have to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.

That’s right: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”

The conventional wisdom is that lawyers are a particularly unhappy group of people, even though satisfaction surveys actually indicate that many lawyers are pleased with their careers. However, some are not. Of the unhappy lawyers, how many are people who never really wanted to be lawyers in the first place? How many had an unrealistic impression of what “being a lawyer” really means?

As I said in my post on Strayed’s advice:

No two lawyers are alike. The only thing a law degree does [in the United States] is give us is the ability to sit for a 2-3 day-long bar exam in the state(s) of our choice. Then, if we pass, we can say we’re lawyers, members of a profession that is so diverse that the term is almost meaningless, like if every oncologist, dentist, immunologist, and veterinarian was called “doctor” without any further delineation.

Imagine a person who went to law school because they wanted to be like To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch (pre-Go Set a Watchman, presumably). How happy is that person when they find themselves representing Wall Street upon graduation? They’re making more money than the real-life Atticus Finch-types are, but job satisfaction and money aren’t necessarily correlated.

I thought about this topic when I read Clare Ashton’s That Certain Something, a novel I included in my Diverse Books Tag. This cute romantic comedy (which takes place in the UK) raises a couple of issues, including:

  • When it comes to relationships, do you prioritize love or money?
  • How about when you choose a job?

With both romantic relationships and occupations, it seems that prioritizing money rarely results in happiness.

When it comes to careers, many people don’t have the luxury of choosing a job. Options are limited in our current economic climate, even for lawyers from prestigious law schools. However, it seems like the lawyers with the greatest number of career opportunities–the ones who went to top 10 law schools–are among the least happy lawyers.

That is, if they joined “Big Law,” the large private law firms that typically represent huge companies in transactions and litigation.

The ones who went into public interest law (as I did) tend to be happier at least in part because the work is meaningful. It’s easy to love your job when you care about the work you do, even if the pay barely covers law school debt.

With Big Law, as Professor Organ noted in What Do We Know About the Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being (PDF), some of the lawyers’ dissatisfaction stems from how hard it is to see “how they are contributing to the common good” (because, quite frankly, they’re usually not).

I also suspect that there comes a point when these lawyers look around their swanky 19th floor offices at 10 PM and think, “Is this all there is? Is this why I went to law school?” They can afford a very comfortable lifestyle, but they don’t have the personal time to actually live it.

Money definitely isn’t everything.

 

 

All The Light We Cannot See The Fault in Our Stars (An Inside Joke)

All the lightCourtesy of Mr. AMB:

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, so it hardly needs praise. I generally liked it, but I have four critical observations.

First, Doerr played a trick with the structure of the book. To keep the reader from being bored, the book relies upon short chapters which jump back and forth from the climax and the true chronology. The trick worked and kept the book interesting, but it’s still a trick, and after a while it felt a bit mechanical and manipulative. (Amusingly, the last time I saw that trick used was the movie Deadpool, which I thought did a better job with it. I doubt the Pulitzer Committee would appreciate the comparison.)

Second, as The Morning News and The New Republic noted, the book reeks of “twee.” (“Twee” is defined as “excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.” For more on the rise of the twee aesthetic, see this Atlantic article.) Unlike Dominic Green at The New Republic, however, I didn’t think that this “turn[ed] the Holocaust into a sentimental mess.” I thought it was charming. It’s possible to discuss serious subjects — and even unspeakable horrors — in a sentimental way, as Roberto Benigni proved with Life is Beautiful. I similarly didn’t see, like Green did, All The Light We Cannot See drawing any sort of equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies in World War II.

Third, I didn’t mind the twee until Doerr killed it. The last fifth of the book should have been omitted. Gone With The Wind ends with a beautiful cliffhanger, leaving the eventual outcome to the reader’s imagination. All The Light We Cannot See ends with a prolonged bummer. If you’re going to spin me a fairy tale, don’t unwind it as life takes its toll on the characters.

Fourth, while reading the book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the it was meant for teenagers.* Indeed, the overall tone of the book is highly similar to The Fault In Our Stars, i.e., a mixture of teenage twee and tragedy. That doesn’t bother me; what bothers me is the completely different reception the two books received. All The Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, whereas The Fault In Our Stars won a bunch of awards with “children” and “youth” in their title. Having read both, I don’t see any real difference in the maturity of the themes, the depth of the characters, the complexity of the plot, the sophistication of the prose, or any of the supposed markers of “adult” or “serious” fiction.

Anyone who loved All The Light We Cannot See but thumbs their nose at adults who read books labeled for a younger audience is a hypocrite.

*Hence the title of this post. Mr. AMB referred to Doerr’s book as “All The Light We Cannot See Because Of The Fault In Our Stars” in conversations with me. Now, I can’t separate the two books in my mind.

The Past: It Sounds Beautiful, Whatever It Means

The Past ThumbnailTessa Hadley’s The Past is an exploration of family tensions that intensify when a group of relatives gather in their grandparents’ country home, possibly for the last time. The gathering includes the Crane family’s four adult siblings, a secretive new wife, two small children with a penchant for voyeurism, a dreamy teenager, and a lustful college student whose sexual history is neither disastrous nor successful.

This is not a book to read for its plot, which is too subtle for my taste, or for its characters, who aren’t particularly likeable or deep. Instead, the beauty of this novel lies in Hadley’s lengthy descriptions of the house and the English countryside:

The house and the church stood together on the rim of a bowl of air scooped deep between the surrounding hills, and buzzards floated on thermals in the air below them. The ancient stubby tower of the church, blind without windows, seemed sunk in the red earth… In the churchyard the earth was upheaved as turbulently as a sea by all the burials in it, and overgrown at one end with tall hogweed and rusty dock.

This place sounds stunning, even though I can’t exactly picture “hogweed” or “rusty dock” without the help of the Internet. Unfortunately, though, the first Google hit for “rusty dock” is an Urban Dictionary entry for a sexual act, which can’t possibly be what Hadley had in mind.

Here’s another snippet:

She advanced across the grass into her dream: the old house dozed in the sunshine, and its French windows under their little canopy of dun lead, burdened with clematis montana, might have opened onto any scene of royalty or poetry or tragic forbearance.

It’s another lovely description, not that I know what “dun lead” looks like. I am familiar with clematis, but I had to google it to determine how clematis montana differs from the varieties I typically picture.

Interestingly, the publisher billed this novel as Hadley’s “most accessible, commercial novel yet.” While it may well be “accessible” in comparison to her other novels, none of which I’ve read, I wouldn’t say this foray into the Crane family’s past and present experience is easy to read. If it were truly “accessible,” I probably wouldn’t need Google to figure out what the descriptions mean.

Which brings me back to “rusty dock” and “dun lead.” Are these Britishisms? I don’t have the patience to skim through thousands of Google results to figure it out.

__________________________________________________

*I added this novel to my TBR pile after seeing it mentioned on River City Reading (thanks, Shannon!).