How today’s copyright law stifles artistic and literary innovation.
BY JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23.
Whether we want to or not, we all read “The Great Gatsby” our sophomore year. And whether we want to or not, we read an edition authorized by the Estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But this won’t be the case for the class of 2024: last month, the book’s copyright expired, and “Gatsby” became a public domain work, meaning it now belongs to humanity as a whole. Going forward, anyone with a printer or a pencil can alter, adapt or republish it, commercially or not, without having to get the green light from Fitzgerald’s heirs.
It may come as a surprise that the book is only now, 95 years after first publication, losing its copyright. Indeed, this century-long delay speaks to greater issues with U.S. copyright law.
To be clear, copyright has its place, and artists and authors ought to have some legally enforced ownership over their work. I’m more likely to put time and effort into my book if I know my neighbor won’t be able to republish it and sell it under his name.
But writing is no solitary pursuit, and inspiration, adaptation, allusion, parody and remix make up the bedrock of the modern American bookscape. If copyright is taken too far, authors cannot build off of each other’s work, hurting authors and hampering literary innovation.
It is crucial, then, that we find the right balance between protecting creators and promoting this innovation. Perhaps the most important part of this equation is how long copyright should last, and that’s where today’s copyright law most transparently fails us.
For example, a work created after 1978 remains in copyright even after its author dies — 70 years after, to be exact. If J.K. Rowling or Stephen King were to die today, you wouldn’t see their works liberated from the shackles of copyright until 2091. (In the case of “Gatsby,” a hard 95-year copyright term was grandfathered in from the laws in place in 1925.)
Of course, traditional property ownership also doesn’t end after death, as any old-money East Egg
resident can tell you. But intellectual property is fundamentally different from other forms of property in that it can be reproduced and redistributed at no cost beyond that of the medium itself. Thus, copyright needs to exist only to incentivize authors to create their work in the first place. What, then, is the point of copyright if there’s no author around anymore?
In the face of so many other problems in America and abroad, copyright reform might seem like a trivial or inconsequential issue. Who cares if you have to wait a few years before being able to cash in on your Nick Carraway fan fiction? On a deeper level, though, our democracy relies on a rich, vibrant and, most importantly, free marketplace of ideas. A system of copyright as restrictive as ours only stifles and suffocates that marketplace.
Copyright is, to be sure, an immensely complicated issue, and there won’t be any quick fixes. Still, change is possible. Donate to Creative Commons and other groups that work to expand the public domain. Call on U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers to push for meaningful reform the next time Congress revisits the law. Become a pirate. Make your voice clear: oppressive copyright law must go.
In the meantime, though, we can only celebrate the years ahead for “Gatsby.” As Nick Carraway tells us, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”