is for the living.
As a publisher, I have an enormous interest in copyright because that is ultimately what I’m selling. I’m selling the copyright to manuscripts that have been sub-leased to me by authors. But I also think that the way that copyright operates in the world today is verging on insane, and it’s one of the many leftovers from the pre-digital era that would best be completely re-thought by some global forum, along with the internet, the environment and indeed the future of the human race. I wrote a song called Copyright several years ago which addressed this topic and has as it’s kicker the line “Copyright is for the living, royalties are not for the dead.” (Find it on Spotify, Apple Music and other platforms). And while there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances, I think that’s basically right.
Copyright law was first introduced in England in the early 18th century, the year 1719 to be precise, to protect the rights of authors who had produced a bestseller only to find that the shop next door had reprinted it and selling it perfectly legally. The purpose of the copyright law, again to quote the song, was “meant as encouragement to give authors income supplement, to convince them to do another one.” My song is a remake of a John Coltrane number, partly for tongue-in-cheek reasons. I have not yet been sued for releasing it.
In the process of publishing books, I have on many occasions come across copyright issues. In the early years of Earnshaw Books we did many reprints of books that had arguably, or not, fallen out of print, and in some cases we looked for the descendants of the original authors, in all cases long-dead. I was concerned at the start about the consequences of publishing these books without permission of the families, but when we did manage to make contact or were contacted by the descendants, they, in all cases, expressed joy and thankfulness that the works of their great-grandfather had been granted another run in the sun.
We also contacted the descendants of Sapajou when we published the great cartoonist’s collected works, the great nephew of Carl Crow, Dennis Crow on Crow’s classics 400 million Customers and Foreign Devils, and the descendants of Ivon Donnelly, author of Chinese Junks. Full support from all.
The only exception to this is the wide and eccentric family of Edmund Backhouse. When we published his China memoirs, Decadance Manchoue, which are hilariously homo-erotic and delightfully sensational, we reached out to several of the descendants and in a couple of cases there was pushback from what I imagine to be the parlors of upper-class mansions across southern England. But there were also many Backhouse descendants very happy to see the works of their eccentric forebear finally emerge into the light of day from the Bodlian Library, where it had lying in obscurity gathering dust. Anyway, we published it, with Derek Sandhaus doing the bulk of the editing and liaison work, and no Backhouseian lawsuit emerged. Edmund was long dead, and my guess is that he would have relished having his work being formally published, as well as been disappointed that the world had changed and his flowery celebration of what Oscar Wilde (who Backhouse claimed to have bedded) described as “the love that dare not speak its name” no longer shocked to the same degree. But it still shocks, honest!
I regularly receive, as maybe do you, e-mails from various websites in Russia and some other eastern European countries, offering books we have published for nothing in PDF or e-book form. This is of course depressing, because we worked hard on creating them. But you can also say that emulation is a mark of success, and if somebody thinks that our books are worth pirating, then maybe it proves that they have some value and market traction. With all of our books published by Earnshaw Books, the contract that we sign always makes it clear that the ultimate copyright lies with the author, not with us the publisher. It’s usually for a term of 10 years, extendable, and that is fair because, in almost all cases, our authors are still alive. And long may they be so. And we also would and have paid royalties to relatives left behind after the death of an author.
But in my heart of hearts, I’m not entirely sure what right the children or grandchildren of an author have to the proceeds of such a book. In the wider world, copyright is now taken to ridiculous extremes by Disney and other major IP holders, who extend endlessly by various methods the copyright on various works that should long ago have fallen into the public domain. There is also the question of the copyright on images and text references, or excerpts, that are used in books, for example the lyrics of the song Happy Birthday and other songs, or photographs taken in Shanghai or San Francisco in the 1930s. My instinct is to push the envelope on this because it just seems silly for copyright owners to effectively hobble creativity by being litigious over the use of such materials long after the death of their creators. There is a similar or related situation with digital samples in the music world, and in that case the creators are usually still alive. In the case of music, I am sure ultimately digital will win out over out-dated copyright concepts. And for books? Some changes are long overdue too.
Earnshaw Books Reprints
|Shamus A’Rabbitt (Illustrations by Sapajou)|
|The poet laureate of the China Treaty Ports, Shamus A’Rabbitt caused a sensation in the 1930s with his “Ballads” books, which mocked the world of foreigners in the Orient. His poetic portrayals were sharp, accurate and hilarious. With bouncy, limerickesque rhythms, razor-sharp satirical wit and a healthy distaste for hypocrisy and pretension, Shamus A’Rabbitt’s work today gives the reader a perfect whirlwind tour of the world of Old China.|
400 Million Customers
|Probably the best-selling book on doing in business in China ever – and undoubtedly the best ever written – Carl Crow’s 400 Million Customers is amusing and informed. First published in 1937, 400 Million Customers is the distillation of the experiences of one of the most successful foreign businessmen ever to wash up on the China coast. Crow brilliantly explains the eternal truths about doing business in the Middle Kingdom.|
|Ivon A. Donnelly|
|The sailing junk was an amazing vessel. Ivon A. Donnelly immortalized these lost treasures in this book from 1924, with a pen and sketchpad and with words that betray his passion for the ancient watercraft of China. Vivid and graceful, grotesque and gay, junks were supremely honed for their particular work. Though time and new technology took their toll and the junk is today all but extinct, their spirit lives on through this delightful collection.|