The Public Domain Will Not Make You Popular
Here’s an interesting assertion from the folks at SFFAudio, offered as part of a longer thread which I’ll not link directly to here, mostly because I want to focus on this particular point, but which you may find on their Twitter feed:
The reason HEINLEIN isn’t read more today is because almost all his stuff is still under copyright and being controlled by a trust that seems mostly uninterested in having HEINLEIN actually read
Drop it into the PUBLIC DOMAIN and u’d see interest fly sky high
That is a SURE BET
That is a set of intriguing assertions that I don’t think I agree with at all!
So, let’s unpack this a bit.
To begin, Heinlein isn’t in any danger of not being read; in particular his power trio of Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land chug along just fine, and will likely continue to do so for a nice long while. There’s a dropoff after that, but, so what? If you want your entire bibliography to be equally popular and acclaimed, write one book. Three Heinlein books keep selling well 32 years after his death and more than five decades after their initial publication; none of his books, so far as I know, is actually out of print. That’s a neat trick for an author.
What is true is that Heinlein is probably less generally relevant to newer science fiction readers and writers than he was to new SF readers and writers in earlier eras. I have essayed this at length before and therefore won’t go into it again now. I will say, however, that Heinlein’s work and the work of many of his contemporaries are at an awkward age: enough decades after publication that the underlying cultural assumptions of the work and the author are no longer consonant with contemporary times, but not enough decades out that the work can comfortably be considered a “period piece,” which means that consonance is no longer expected.
In other words: a lot of “Golden Age of Science Fiction” work currently lies in a sort of cultural uncanny valley, existing in a simultaneous state of being too distant from contemporary readers, and also not nearly distant enough. That’s not Heinlein’s fault, precisely; it’s a matter of time and culture. It’s going to happen to most creative work — well, most work that’s remembered at all.
(This literary uncanny valley is something I think about a lot and it’s something I want to write about at more length; I’ll get to it eventually. For now, just know I think it’s a thing, and that Heinlein and most of his Golden Age contemporaries are currently in it.)
Moving on to the issue of the Heinlein Prize Trust, which administers the Heinlein copyrights, snark aside, I strongly suspect that it is in fact very interested in having Heinlein read, inasmuch as the income from that helps to fuel the trust’s other interests. This is why among other things 2020 saw the publication of The Pursuit of the Pankera, a (mostly) new novel from him. One could argue whether the trust is being as effective as it could be in spreading the gospel of Heinlein to newer generations, and perhaps this is what the SFFAudio folks were getting at. But I don’t think the trust can be faulted for not making an effort to keep Heinlein relevant and in the public eye.
With all the above said, the assertion I find the most interesting is the “release Heinlein into the public domain and interest will explode” one. I am, shall we say, deeply skeptical of that assertion.
That skepticism is neither here nor there regarding how I personally feel about the concept of the public domain, which I support and believe to be an unmitigated public good. Moreover I think the current length of the term of copyright (life plus 70 years) is a bit much; my great-grandchildren do not need to be picking on the bones of my estate. The public domain! It’s good!
It’s also not a panacea for attention. Very few creators exist in the public domain with more fame and notability, or notoriety, than they had before their works entered it (or in the cases of the eras in which copyright was a much wilder field than it is now, while they were at least alive and still producing). Yes, occasionally a few — Emily Dickinson, please come forward to take your bow — but for every creator you could think to name, there are thousands, possibly tens of thousands, for whom the public domain has offered nothing but continued obscurity.
Heinlein would not likely suffer from public domain obscurity; he was arguably the most famous science fiction writer of his age, or at the very least on an elevated tier which also held Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury. But even in a world where Heinlein’s entire bibliography dropped into the public domain overnight, you would probably not see a massive upswing in interest for his work. You’d see some initially, I’m sure; an author of Heinlein’s stature (generally, and particularly among nerds) would cause a run at Project Gutenberg. But after that early rush to stuff his oeuvre into an ebook reader, I suspect you would see what’s already the case: a few of Heinlein’s works getting the largest percentage of the downloads and the rest more or less left to languish.
Nor would those currently popular works be any more popular than they are now. Look, Heinlein is already not hard to get for free — go to your public library, I pretty much guarantee you he’s on the shelf. Even my tiny local public library has a dozen titles ready to be checked out, and that’s without interlibrary loan. He’s not hard to get for cheap, either; go visit a secondhand bookstore sometime (wear your mask when you do, it’s 2020) and you can get an 80s edition paperback for $1.25. Go to a yard sale and you’ll find that paperback for a quarter. And, of course, all his books are in print, if you actually want to fund his estate. Heinlein is ubiquitous and accessible now; that ubiquity and accessibility is satisfying existing demand for his work quite sufficiently. Putting his work in the public domain isn’t going to unlock a pent-up demand; that pent-up demand doesn’t exist.
It’s not just Heinlein, of course. The demand for other golden age science fiction writers is equally being met by the market, and the public domain won’t explode their popularity, either. The golden age authors who are already in the public domain are testament to that. H. Beam Piper, of whose work I am fond (obviously), has most of his major works in the public domain. It has not been a notably huge boost to his reputation or his readership, here in the 21st century.
The public domain is a public good, not a promise of public awareness. It will not lead to a Heinlein renaissance (or an Asimov ascendance, or a Bradbury blooming, etc).
What would? As I’ve mentioned elsewhere before: a new movie or TV series based on a Heinlein novel would probably do the trick just fine. Asimov is about to get a boost from that upcoming Foundation series, and on a scope and scale that a release of the Foundation books into the public domain could never hope to have. The public domain does not have literally tens of millions of dollars in advertising budget to promote its new releases; Apple (in the case of the Foundation TV series) absolutely does, and that will drive interest in the books and do more to extend the reputation of Asimov and his work here in the 21st century than anything else. More than the public domain, certainly.
So, no. The public domain is not, in fact, a sure bet for the popularity of Heinlein and his work. Not now; possibly not ever. Should his work be in the public domain? Assuredly, and will be, in time (starting in 2058 at the very least). But the fame he has in the public domain will likely be what he had outside of it. If the Heinlein Trust wants that fame to be substantial, they should probably get to work on optioning his titles into other media as soon as possible.