The Public Domain Will Do Terrible Things to Your Novel
Copyright is usually not something an author has to worry about in his or her lifetime. In many cases that’s literally true, since the copyright expiration is either 50 or 70 years after the author’s death for most single-author written works in most parts of the world.
Here in the States it’s a little more complicated (you can see a full chart here if you like), with lots of exceptions, extensions, and exemptions (fun phrase to write) for authors before or after a certain time period, corporate properties (the effect of the “Mickey Mouse lobby”), and posthumously published works. But unless you’re very unlucky it’s basically impossible to see your own copyright expire while you’re still alive.
And that’s a good thing, because the public domain will do terrible things to your book.
I’m not speaking so much from a financial perspective. This is more a matter of pride. It came to mind when I picked up a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables at a used book sale:
If you’re not familiar, Nathaniel Hawthorne did not write pulp fantasy, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell that from the cover. The tagline “Built on a wizard’s grave, centuries of secret sins curse — The House of the Seven Gables” isn’t even accurate (the house is built on the property of a man executed during the Puritan witch trials, but not on his grave), and even if it were, the packaging seems like a downright cruel way to sell someone looking for trashy fantasy a book that reads like this:
The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within. Were these to be worthily recounted, they would form a narrative of no small interest and instruction, and possessing, moreover, a certain remarkable unity, which might almost seem the result of artistic arrangement. But the story would include a chain of events extending over the better part of two centuries, and, written out with reasonable amplitude, would fill a bigger folio volume, or a longer series of duodecimos, than could prudently be appropriated to the annals of all New England during a similar period. It consequently becomes imperative to make short work with most of the traditionary lore of which the old Pyncheon House, otherwise known as the House of the Seven Gables, has been the theme. With a brief sketch, therefore, of the circumstances amid which the foundation of the house was laid, and a rapid glimpse at its quaint exterior, as it grew black in the prevalent east wind,–pointing, too, here and there, at some spot of more verdant mossiness on its roof and walls,–we shall commence the real action of our tale at an epoch not very remote from the present day. Still, there will be a connection with the long past–a reference to forgotten events and personages, and to manners, feelings, and opinions, almost or wholly obsolete –which, if adequately translated to the reader, would serve to illustrate how much of old material goes to make up the freshest novelty of human life. Hence, too, might be drawn a weighty lesson from the little-regarded truth, that the act of the passing generation is the germ which may and must produce good or evil fruit in a far-distant time; that, together with the seed of the merely temporary crop, which mortals term expediency, they inevitably sow the acorns of a more enduring growth, which may darkly overshadow their posterity.
Hawthorne was never a man to use one word where five would do. I didn’t make an error in copy/pasting; that really is one paragraph, and most are of comparable length.
I quite like Hawthorne, myself, but I find the Aerie Books 2-for-$1-at-Walmart edition painfully misleading. The text on the back (pictured below) almost seems to be taking permission from Hawthorne’s own introduction, where he says
[The author]will be wise, no doubt, to make a very moderate use of
the privileges here stated, and, especially, to mingle the Marvelous
rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor, than as any
portion of the actual substance of the dish offered to the public.
He can hardly be said, however, to commit a literary crime even if
he disregard this caution.
Suffice it to say that the advertising folks at Aerie Books, Ltd. blended more than a bit of the Marvelous into their cover copy:
Most of that is technically true, so far as a summary of the book goes, though not in quite such a literal sense as the description makes it seem. It is, however, a far cry from any words I might use to recommend The House of the Seven Gables to a potential reader.
But such is the fate of all works, once they fall into the public domain. Be glad you won’t live to see it, and take some enjoyment in parting from this last bit of Hawthorne’s preface, which might be the longest and most overwrought “this work is a piece of fiction and any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental” disclaimer I’ve ever read:
The reader may perhaps choose to assign an actual locality to the
imaginary events of this narrative. If permitted by the historical
connection,–which, though slight, was essential to his plan,–the
author would very willingly have avoided anything of this nature.
Not to speak of other objections, it exposes the romance to an
inflexible and exceedingly dangerous species of criticism, by
bringing his fancy-pictures almost into positive contact with
the realities of the moment. It has been no part of his object,
however, to describe local manners, nor in any way to meddle
with the characteristics of a community for whom he cherishes
a proper respect and a natural regard. He trusts not to be
considered as unpardonably offending by laying out a street that
infringes upon nobody’s private rights, and appropriating a lot of
land which had no visible owner, and building a house of materials
long in use for constructing castles in the air. The personages
of the tale–though they give themselves out to be of ancient
stability and considerable prominence–are really of the author’s
own making, or at all events, of his own mixing; their virtues can
shed no lustre, nor their defects redound, in the remotest degree,
to the discredit of the venerable town of which they profess to be
inhabitants. He would be glad, therefore, if-especially in the
quarter to which he alludes-the book may be read strictly as a
Romance, having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead
than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex.
They just don’t write like that anymore. For the best, really.