When I am Dead I Plan to Stop Writing

I’m a full-time working writer and I rely on royalties from books (OK, advances really, I’ve only had one book that earned out beyond its advance) to feed myself and stay alive in order to write more books.  That’s the basic deal I have with society.  I write, I, in theory, get paid enough to write more as long as people want what I’m writing.

When I die, I plan to stop writing.  At that point, no amount of money will persuade me to take up the pen.

I would like to think that some of my work might still be relevant and available after I’m gone, but the more I read about long copyright terms (The Electronic Frontier Foundation had a nice article today on why Gatsby is not in the public domain), the more I believe that this is almost guaranteed not to happen, especially as more and more works are released largely in digital formats.  This means there will be few fun discoveries of old books in used book stores.

Of course I have dreams, as any artist does. But as much as I would like to believe that I will attain the stature of Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Twain or Wilde or Hemmingway, I am realistic enough to know that most writers are lucky if they make it to “minor poet” status.

The fate of not-entirely-famous authors in an era of almost century long copyrights is predictable.  The works will not keep selling in the kind of numbers that give publishers the economic incentive to keep printing.

Once they stop, no one else will have the ability to print it or to make it available in a digital format without permission from the copyright holder, and figuring out who that is, and who might sue someone who print or quote from it at length will be too costly and time consuming to contemplate.  Works with only mild followings and interest, like mine, will be effectively killed.  By the time they come out of copyright, almost no one alive will have had access to it or interest in it.  (See The Atlantic’s article on the “missing 20th Century” in literature caused by copyright.  I recommend it highly as well as the embedded video there if you have a bit of time to spare.)

I would like to avoid that fate, but I haven’t found any easy alternative.  The only two choices for a modern author seem to be copyrighting work and having it locked up forever or granting a creative commons license which essentially means giving the work away for free in your lifetime.  What I would like to have available to me is something like copyright as it existed before Sonny Bono’s Copyright Extension Act.  Something that allows me to make a living and control my work today as an incentive to create, but which also gives it a chance of becoming part of the culture in the future.

If Disney could own Steamboat Willie forever without forcing the great mass of works out of existence, I say fine, let them.  We could have two copyright options.  One that goes on basically forever so that Chaz Bono can keep collecting royalties on “The Beat Goes On” as long as there are beats to go on and then old-fashioned limited copyright for the great mass of artists who are not all that famous.   My guess is that such a system would preserve infinitely works that happen to be money makers today, like Fifty Shades of Gray, while leaving less commercial but probably more artistic works for the people of the future.

I assume that I can, as a copyright holder, draft a will that releases my works into the public domain on my death. (While still respecting the rights of any publishers I have contracts with) As a starving artist, hiring a lawyer is a bit off my radar at the moment. I do wish someone would come up a simple, easy to use solution for writers who do not want to just release their work to the public domain immediately but who do not want to have it locked up by copyright for the next two generations.


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