The Mufti of Constantinople

Lewis Hyde explains that in 1739, the established churches in Philadelphia denied their pulpits to the visiting Methodist minister George Whitefield. Benjamin Franklin and others took up a collection to build a public lecture hall that would be, in Franklin’s words,

expressly for the Use of any Preacher of any religious Persuasion who might desire to say something to the People of Philadelphia, the Design in building not being to accommodate any particular Sect, but the Inhabitants in general, so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a Missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a Pulpit at his Service.


This is great! And suggests a nice compromise solution to the issue of the cultural center near Ground Zero. The supporters can rename it The Benjamin Franklin Public Lecture Center, and solicit donations from all Americans who want to honor Ben Franklin’s many contributions to our country. And they could have a Methodist pastor conduct the first event in the building.

You can never tell; it might work. After all, the tee shirts picturing Franklin that were being sold at Glenn Beck’s DC rally were the “Hope” part of the three tee shirt Faith, Hope, and Charity set.

I’m always puzzled by the way in which “cultural commons” advocates assert that publishing a book, or issuing a recording of music or a movie, is not “sharing.”

The work has been made public.

It can be read, listened to, or viewed.

As long as permission is obtained from the copyright holder, numerous derivative works may be produced.

The only caveat is that the copyright holders, the people who spent large amounts of time and money creating the work, want to be paid.

When the copyright expires and the work enters the public domain, even payment is not a requirement.

All the creative solutions for “commons” seem to center around getting all the benefits of public-domain work immediately—free everything. They are willing to consider that the government, or someone other than them, may be forced to pay something, as long as they personally get all those freebies. News flash: All branches of the US government are flat broke and likely to remain so for a long time. As for arts grants, donations, etc. most artists are already pushing for everything they can just to fund creation, and not getting much.


I should add, anyone who asserts that we should adhere to the ideals of the Founding Fathers because they were Founding Fathers, should remember that the Founding Fathers also supported slavery and denied women the vote.

Dear Fran,

A few citations from the book:

“I don’t believe that positions held by earlier generations have any necessary force in the present.”

“The very first copyright law…gave ‘the Authors and Proprietors” of books exclusive rights to their works for as long as 28 years…. For most of the twentieth century the law in the United States was much the same: rights lasted 28 years (and could be renewed once, if the owner cared) provided that works were duly registered with the copyright office. Both of these seem to me to offer sensible ways to manage the ‘intellectual property’ found in books.”

“…as the next century unfolded abolitionists, feminists, and others made it clear that the Constitution was no text ‘without a thinker’; containing a clause dealing with fugitive slaves, for example, it was quite adequately marked by the partial views of those who wrote it.”

Mine is not an originalist argument. I support properly limited copyright. The book is not about race, class, and gender, but it is not blind to those topics, either, and has a long discussion of the fate of Native American land rights.

I hope you get a chance to read the book.

And what does he advocate for “properly limited” copyright? Thing is:

28 years is not long enough. (And remember that lifespans were shorter in the 18th century.) It can take several years to write a book (often longer), and tens of thousands of dollars to edit and produce it. I run a very small publishing business indeed, have published nine books so far, and kept them constantly in print (one in a new edition; I put the first edition OP). I have invested several hundred thousand dollars of my own money and 19 years of my own full-time work in these books. And, I’m barely getting by.

The sales of a book are not necessarily in direct proportion to its cultural value. “Trashy” bestsellers, for example, sell far more copies than most scholarly and scientific books: Does that mean our culture should quit supporting scholarly and scientific works? True, some scientific books become obsolete fast, but many scholarly books stand the test of time better.

And, a shorter copyright term essentially means supporting large publishers who keep books in print for a year or two, then drop them. POD and e-books are changing that strategy even for large publishers; but also, the industry is shifting towards a significantly higher percentage of micropublishers than there were even a few years ago. Micropublishers typically rely heavily on a backlist strategy where books take much longer to take off, sell much more slowly, and are kept in print for a long time to earn a profit.

I have no children, but if I did I’d want to leave them some money. The modest amount of money my parents left me was derived from decades of careful saving, conservative investment, and compound interest. Their stock purchases contributed no creative work to society. Why should creators of works and their heirs be financially penalized?

Why, exactly, is a shorter copyright term necessary? Desktop publishing has created an explosion of new books, hundreds of thousands more than just a few years ago. The Library of Congress cataloging system, and all the major review media are looking for excuses to weed out as many books as possible from even cursory consideration, because they are so swamped with submissions. True, the publishing industry is suffering from the recession, but so are most other industries.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


And, by the way, I am not going to read the book because it would just tick me off. I am constantly bombarded by cultural crap from people who want short copyright terms, free books, etc. The three things most of them have in common is that they (a) denigrate creators and distributors of works and (b) do not have the faintest clue of the economics of writing or publishing and (c) seem to feel that unlike all other professions (however beneficial), creators of works are supposed to labor for the sheer joy and generosity of it, while the people who want their works free are far better paid.

I am seriously tired of constantly being told how “greedy” I am for wanting a copyright term that lasts the rest of my life, insulted for “ripping off” readers, and for not wanting to give away enormous amounts of full-time labor and money, screamed at, insulted, threatened (with piracy) if I don’t do what “the masses” want, etc., etc., etc. etc. And then told that all creators of works labor out of some kind of compulsion and if I won’t slave for their edification and enjoyment, plenty of other people will, so who needs me?

These people hate books and writers, as far as I can tell. If there’s no money in this profession and a constant stream of abuse or at best, entitlement arguments (as in, they’re entitled to my work, free), why on earth should I bother?

I am also very well aware that this is all about money: About libraries not wanting to pay for books (or at least not nearly as much), about search engine companies wanting to make money from selling them and advertising next to them, etc. There is no reason I should be any more high-minded than anyone else. Why on earth should I suffer economically just to drip an endless stream of freebies into the mouths of selfish readers and corporations that are already highly profitable?

So you really think writers and publishers are making so much money they won’t happen to miss the big chunk of earnings that a shorter coyright term would give to everyone else? All those cultural parasites who did absolutely nothing to create the work, who insult it, but want it anyway—as long as they don’t have to pay?

Again—lifespans. Let’s set aside the fact that a Copyright Office already swamped with a rapidly increasing number of submissions probably does not want most books submitted yet again, for renewal.

In the 18th century, a 54-year copyright term stood a very good chance of lasting the rest of a person’s life, even if that person wrote the book in his or her 20s. With people now more commonly living into their 80s and 90s, that is not the case. Also, note that both e-books and print-on-demand provide avenues for either a publisher or the author to keep a book in print for far longer than the few years than is encouraged by the now outdated strategy of print some books offset, then quit selling them after the first print run or so has been sold out.

Also, note that by the time I am eligible for Social Security, there may well be no money left in that system. It’s pretty certain there will be none left for people who are 20 years younger than I am. All those senior authors may well be very happy to have that trickle of e-book or POD sales or royalties that you have probably blithely declared unnecessary to their personal incomes.

It’s very seldom authors who are crying out for limited copyright terms or “information should be free” strategies. We habitually read, research, quote from, create derivative works from, and generally use the work of other authors. It’s just that, we’re willing to pay for uses not permissible under the current fair use laws. They are our fellow professionals, and we understand that they put substantial work and money into their creations. We understand that they are not hobbyists, and that other sources of income often do not and cannot support them. We understand that it is not incumbent on them to be idealists or ignorant of business, so that others can profit handsomely from their work. We love books, so we believe they are worth paying for.

Besides, we can already give permissions for use of our work, up to and including putting it into the public domain. We don’t need any change in copyright law to enable that.

Do you believe that doctors benefit society? Do you believe lawyers benefit society? Do you believe plumbers benefit society? Are there many professions you think society could really do without?

Then why not force all them to work for free after the first 28 (or whatever) years?

The economic reality so many of you do not seem to be grasping, is that most professions are paid right away/on the spot for their work. Writers, on the other hand, invest a great deal of labor in the hope of being paid gradually over the course of years. That does not mean they consider the last years free work that they can afford to or wish to give away.

I would also add, that writers lost just as high a percentage of their retirement savings in the stock market and real estate crashes, as everyone else. That makes the matter of income in those non-Social-Security years even more important.

If I want to give my work away, I have full power to do so at any time. To try to force me to do it is gross exploitation.

“And, by the way, I am not going to read the book…”

Well then, farewell. Go in peace.