Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Author Jonathan Lethem Gives Away Other People's Copyright Protection

Jonathan Lethem gained some attention recently with a Harper's essay on copyright laws and what constituted plagiarism. Frankly, I think Gilberto Gil of Brazil is far more forward-thinking and interesting on the issue of copyrights. (To sum up a complex debate, copyright law in the US has been abused to protect the financial interests of major corporations like Disney instead of working to keep intellectual property as free and available as possible to the people. Books and CDs and movies and music are SUPPOSED to go into the public domain, but the law has been rejiggered to make even fair use (like quoting a line or two) become illegal and suspect. Gil and others are pushing for a whole new way of thinking about intellectual property that encourages creativity and the use of intellectual works as a resource for artists rather than strictly as a never-ending stream of revenue for one company.)

Now Lethem has "boldly" said he's selling the rights to his next novel to anyone with a cool bid, with several telling caveats: he wants 2% of the budget once the film has been bought for distribution and he wants the rights to the movie and that all ancillary rights must go into the public domain five years after it's released. Now 2% of a budget is actually a tidy sum for the rights to an author who has never had a film made of any of his work and whose novels aren't exactly ripe for blockbuster status. A modest Hollywood movie might cost $30 mil (that's VERY modest) and that means Lethem would get $600,000, a darn good chunk of change for the writer of the novel who didn't even do a first draft of the screenplay. But demanding that others give up the ownership of the movie five years later really rubs me the wrong way. I'd be a lot more impressed if Lethem gave up the rights to HIS OWN WORK -- why not demand his publisher make the book available for free online as a download five years after it came out? Why not demand that they not get exclusive right to it as a backlist title and say that anyone could publish it who wanted to? That would be a much bolder stroke than insisting OTHER PEOPLE give up their copyright when Lethem won't do it (or can't do it because of contracts) himself.

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