The Public Domain Will Not Make You Popular

John ScalziHere’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.

— JS

94 Comments on “The Public Domain Will Not Make You Popular”

  1. A couple of additional notes that I thought might distract from the piece:

    1. Part of the discussion the tweet I quoted was in had the SFFAudio folks push back against an (apparent) assertion that one doesn’t need to read Heinlein if one reads me; the SFFAudio folks assert that I am not the equivalent to reading Heinlein. And they are correct! If you want to read Heinlein, read Heinlein; while I write very much in a stylistic tradition of which Heinlein is the most famous practitioner, and OMW is essentially Starship Troopers with old people (as I very often myself say), it’s also true that I am not him and he is not me. I am not a Heinlein substitute, the margarine to his pure creamery butter, etc. It’s closer to say that if Heinlein were Waylon Jennings, I would be Toby Keith. If you like one, you’ll likely like the other, but there enough of a difference there to notice.

    2. This is all probably a bit of a stalking horse for the SF/F canon discussion, although I don’t think the SFFAudio folks are being particularly reactionary here; rather saying that what’s out now is not necessarily equivalent to what’s come before. Which, if that is indeed what they’re saying, I find to be correct, although I am also on record as saying I don’t think it’s essential to have read everything that’s come before to write in the field (and even if one thinks it is, it’s immaterial, because people are writing in the field anyway, quite successfully, without having taken a survey course on the history of the SF/F field). But yes — the stuff today is not the stuff yesterday! It is known.

    3. Also, in case it’s not already clear: this is not a signal to dump on the SFFAudio folks. They said something, I said, “huh, I don’t think I agree” and explained why. That’s all. This is not something I think we need to have a holy war over and I would thank you not to a) assume that’s the case, b) be terrible people to SFFAudio over it. If you feel you must be, don’t do it here, and know I am looking askance at you for it.

    4. Oh! And! I meant to address the idea that once something is in the public domain than adaptations/rewrites/new takes on the material will continue to give it new life. This is broadly not wrong! And also, in practice for the immense majority of work, irrelevant, since, again, the vast majority of public domain work sits unused and obscure. To put it another way, we get a new Shakespeare film every few months, and almost never see (well-financed, wide-release) takes on the work of John Ford or Ben Jonson, two of Shakespeare’s immediate contemporary dramatists who were generally as popular in their day. The Power Law, I would argue, applies to the public domain.

  2. IMO, “All of Heinlein’s books are in print” is a sufficient and impressive answer to the original objection. They may not be being pushed in the advertising marketplace as much as could be, but that can’t be SFFAudio’s concern, because who would be doing that pushing if it were in public domain? Not the trust, which wouldn’t be making any money off it. Enthusiastic readers? They can do that now. All of Heinlein’s books are in print.

  3. “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.”

    Just not to Paul Verhoeven.

  4. Agreed on all points. Just a few thoughts/comments:

    1. Life + 70 is *really* too long. In the US, at least, the justification for both copyright and patent law is contained in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for LIMITED TIMES to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” (emphasis mine). The bargain embodied here–protection in exchange for publication–is not really served by protecting an author’s work for generations after the author is dead. Put differently, would an author really publish less if the term were shorter? Well, if it were only 5 or 6 years, perhaps, but how many authors would not write, or write and not publish, if the copyright extended for, say, their lifetimes but no further?

    2. With regard to your last point regarding optioning Heinlein for other media, I suspect at least part of the issue is lack of interest by said other media. I am a Heinlein fan, but much of his writing seems pretty dated, and his later works seem rather self-indulgent (not to mention the serious “ick” factor of his apparent Oedipal complex).

  5. Amen.

    Your point about Piper is telling; the same thing is true of Burroughs, Doc Smith, and others. (Do a search on Doc Smith on Project Gutenberg, like I just did. Triplanetary? 364 downloads in the last 30 days. First Lensman? 361 downloads. Skylark of Space? 261. These numbers do not a renaissance make. Piper’s numbers are even lower.)

    For a counterpoint, look at Piper’s contemporary James Schmitz. Complain about the editing job on them – as I have and will – the Baen reprints brought his work to a much wider audience than Gutenberg ever could.

  6. Kevin Grierson:

    If there was going to be an option taken, it’s a pretty good bet that whoever took the option would be updating the material to current sensibilities. I would, if I were optioning it. I think it’s possible to do and still retain the Heinlein-ness of the material.

  7. Agree that Heinlein is still being being read! And that public domain is no solution in any case.

    But where I think there ***IS*** a problem is that so very little of the master’s canon is available digitally. I own a hard copy of very nearly every volume he published. But I currently live with family in a small home with little space for bookshelves, so most of my library is in storage. I’d LOVE to buy his books on Kindle, but many are not available in that form.

    Maybe that’s due to a lack of demand, but that seems difficult to believe. While your description of the uncanny valley is excellent – I think the best analysis I’ve read about the problematic place that the work of that era currently occupies – there are a lot of us in our 40s, 50s, and 60s who grew up on those works and I’m sure many of us would purchase them for Kindle, could we but do so!

  8. Seriously, a much better treatment of Starship Troopers would be welcome on either the big screen or in serial form. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress might be good if it’s not put into the hands of a libertarian nut (Zach Snyder, this means you), and Stranger in a Strange Land is at the point in our culture where it’s no longer too risqué to present (indeed, it may not be risqué enough). Tolkien’s readership got a giant boost from the LOTR movies, enough to give Christopher Tolkien many more years of churning out new Middle Earth material with a sizable audience before his passing.

  9. I am completely stumped by the reasoning that went into the assertion by a crowd I frankly had never heard of. I am cynical enough to wonder if they tried to get a license to sell audio versions of RAH’s work and discovered that it would *gasp!* actually cost them meaningful money to do so.

    I don’t have to tell you, this is a version of the old, “You should do this thing for which you get paid, for me for free, because you will get exposure from it!” Any park ranger can tell you, people die from exposure every year.

  10. The public domain assumption might come from the proliferation of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. There are numerous overlapping editions of their stories, particularly of H.P. Lovecraft who at present has about 50 different editions of his stories in print, most overlapping each other and many with all new illustrations. This in spite of the fact that Lovecraft’s views on race have been scrutinized and criticized but that doesn’t stop new editions from being published including two different illustrated editions of “The Call Of Cthulhu” in the past couple years.

  11. James Van Hise:

    And yet Lovecraft is probably getting the biggest boost from the fact that there’s a TV show out now called Lovecraft Country. Which addresses his racism head-on.

    (this is not me disagreeing with you, this is me “yes, and”-ing you)

  12. “…existing in a simultaneous state of being too distant from contemporary readers, and also not nearly distant enough.”

    Something I’ve never thought about, but true. Literature from writers such as Jane Austin, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dickens, and others exists far enough in the past that to fully understand many of the social and cultural references takes an annotated version to explain subtleties that a modern reader would miss. Literature from the 30s-60s–Golden Age Era–is far enough in the past to be dated but not so far back that we need help in understanding the cultural and social references. (But movies–try to explain to a teen today why everyone smoked all the time!)

    I’ve alway had an interest in military history and live not too far from the Gettysburg Battlefield. I’ve turned into an informal tour guide for out of town friends and relatives and friends of friends/relatives. In order to explain the battle as something more than statues in fields I’ve found it essential to spend a good hour or so beforehand discussing why Civil War battles were fought the way they were–the weapons, technologies, how infantry/artillery/calvary were used and why, logistics, formations and how they were controlled, what is was like when you could hide an entire army by marching behind a ridge a mile away, why it took hours to get a division moved a couple of miles, why soldiers could stand in rows facing each other 50 yards apart and fire into each other for 20 minutes, why were frontal assaults still employed…it’s essential to provide the context for what happened and why.

  13. “…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.”
    I agree and I think it’s because those works in particular remain topical even today.

  14. “Drop it into the PUBLIC DOMAIN and u’d see interest fly sky high”

    This post/tweet is pointless nonsense by an anonymous internet weirdo trying to drum up attention. Does it really need a signal boost?

  15. Got to admit, going into a movie or TV will boost popularity (or not…in the case of Ian Banks Culture series). For us “older” readers, having them around is reassuring, since the newer SF writers just don’t hit the mark…present company excepted! Nothing like the poetic Bradbury or the action of Heinlein…sorry “Fortuna”. you just put me to sleep trying to get to the point.

  16. The person who wrote is neither anonymous nor as far as I can see were intending to drum up attention any more than anyone who writes anything on Twitter (i.e., in public). They didn’t link me to it; I found it in my wanderings. I found it interesting.

    Also: When I need your opinion about what things I decide to write about, I’ll let you know.

  17. I’ve picked up many of his books from the public library (electronically) in print and audio format. They are very frequently available for immediate download. They make for some nice “filler” while I’m waiting for other novels to be published or for my wait list items to come available.

    I like your “uncanny valley” analogy. That put to words what I’ve felt when reading them. I like them and can get past the bits that don’t still resonate or would be culturally insensitive/inappropriate/etc.

    I will admit that sometimes I have trouble telling if they are being sarcastic/critical of something that once upon a time would be considered “bad” by most people but now would probably be considered “good”.

  18. I know you’re not a lawyer, but you deal with authoring and legal issues frequently. Could an author specify in their will that they would donate their works to the public domain earlier than the 70 year period?

  19. Colin Kuskie:

    It could probably be done and if the law didn’t allow for it, you could simply give your work a Creative Commons license, which would effectively accomplish the same thing.

  20. I think a better example for the impact of Public Domain on literary works is Sherlock Holmes: half the stories are still locked down by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, the other are being transformed and modernised, with the lawsuit around the Netflix movie brining the issue to light.

  21. “being too distant from contemporary readers, and also not nearly distant enough”
    I see that frequently when rereading older books. The Sexism and Racism Fairies have smacked a lot of books in that era hard. Books from before that era may well be, and often are, much worse, but we treat them as being “of their time” and so ignore it. Mostly.

    One non-genre book where I’m seeing that is “Tales From the South Pacific” by Michener. It’s about WW2, in the Pacific, and takes place during and around naval operations. Lots of racism there. Some of it is called out in the book as being bad, both morally and tactically, but a lot is just the background. Now, the US in that era was horrifically racist, and the Navy was bad even by US standard, but… Damn, you can see how that book got a Pulitzer and launched a career. It’s almost old enough to be Of Its Time.

  22. I did wonder whether SFFAudio was talking their book (you’ll pardon the expression) in one way or another.

    OT for OGH: Does Athena get the same green-and-ghostly-pic graphic treatment when she commens as you do?

  23. for what it’s worth, i do remember the concept you outlined from some lecture or other at uni – things are in living memory, or they eventually get re-contextualised as history. one is an inside perspective from the thing’s world on the thing, the other a view on the thing from outside. but inbetween is an uncomfortable gap that doesn’t really allow it to be either.

    regarding your assertions about public domain vs interest: sounds spot-on to me. sure, it would take one possible obstacle out of the way – texts not being published and thus not sold – but if his work is continually in print, that isn’t really an argument. or at least it’s only partially an argument, when only available on paper, but not in ebook form or any other form people would prefer.
    given my lack of success several years back (before the film) to find a nice edition of the john carter texts (even if only those whose copyright had expired), it appears that publishers will indeed only invest in something that promises enough sales to be worth it. if the times don’t promise those, even the text being in the public domain doesn’t appear to make much of a dent: all i could find was a badly laid out copy-and-paste job with not a thought spent on typesetting. let alone making it a genuinely pretty object.

  24. Totally off-topic, I know, but I followed your link to the May 2018 post, and one of the comments had me ROTFL:

    I feel that anybody in bed with Lazarus Long would be faking an orgasm just to get him to shut up and go away. Possibly before they got their top buttons undone.

  25. ” half the stories are still locked down by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, ”

    That is incorrect.

    “The court ruled in Klinger’s favor, meaning that stories and characters from Holmes’ universe are now in the public domain in the U.S. – except for nine stories featured in The Case-Book, minus “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”, “The Problem of Thor Bridge”, and “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”. The rights to those stories will expire between 2020 and 2023.”

  26. Yes to “being too distant from contemporary readers, and also not nearly distant enough.” My mom read almost all of Heinlein to me when I was little, but when I’ve tried to read any of them to my daughter, she gets bored almost instantly. The “golly-gee-whiz” innocence of much of his juveniles was close enough to my 1970s childhood that it didn’t stop me from enjoying them, but my 2010s daughter finds them to be entirely too slow a roll for her. Part of me wishes that what the estate would do is Nancy Drew-style contemporize his juveniles, and part of me shudders in horror at the very idea. And there are plenty of new authors, especially in the kid’s section, for her to read.

  27. While I broadly agree, Heinlein may be one of the few more popular in public domain via making an adaptation easier. The Heinlein Prize Trust does not strike me as kind of rightsholder happy with the Verhoeven movie (though I can’t find any specific statement), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted future adaptations more “true to the book” as it were. A reasonable enough desire (look at I, Robot …) but would make an adaptation less likely. There are regular attempted adaptations of his other work but none of them have gotten off the ground, but of course that could have a million reasons that don’t have anything to do with the Trust.

    His books and reputation are distinctive and present enough that they’re not books entirely mined for ideas by much better known properties (like Skylark / Lensman) so I don’t think he’d fade away in quite the same way as, say, E.E. Doc Smith has.

  28. It’s 75 years because then-Congressman Sonny Bono, largely at the behest of Disney, got the Copyright Term Extension Act passed. Per Wikipedia: “The 1976 Act also increased the extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain from 28 years to 47 years, giving a total term of 75 years.”

    That’s how an industry – and specifically, again Disney – that made much of its money from the public domain (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) tries to shut out newcomers.

  29. It’s not science fiction, but it’s stunning how Tales of the City falls into the literary uncanny valley. Reading it, I was struck by how many institutions, brands, and customs could be taken for granted by a reader at the time that were utterly alien to me now. I seriously looked up some of them because I assumed he made them up, but they were real. And that was the 70s!

    The cultural uncanny valley is weird.

  30. I disagree with your post a fair bit, Mr Scalzi. I was going to go into why, but then I saw

    >Also: When I need your opinion about what things I decide to write about, I’ll let you know.

    Okey doke. Stay safe.

  31. Thank youy, John, for using the word “consonance”. It was in my vocabulary previously, but long unused and largely forgotten, though I’ve reached for it a few times over the past few years and couldn’t find it. Your usage has re-flagged it in the database, so thanks!

  32. Gabriel, I think you are taking his comment wrong. John doesn’t mind if readers disagree with his blog posts. His remark was addressed at a comment that said he shouldn’t have discussed the topic at all.

  33. I wonder ….

    1) A whole lot more people are exposed to the material in Lord of the Rings, Starship Troopers, I, Robot, Dune, etc when movies come out. This is pretty clear, as the material is (more or less) in the movies.
    2) This doesn’t necessitate more people read the books.
    3) Even publishing records wouldn’t indicate additional reading; folks could be buying books and treating them as decoration.
    4) Instead: Libraries. They might have the data.

    So, open research question: Do libraries see a surge in rentership when there’s a media tie in?

    I’ve asked my library. We’ll see if they respond. My knee-jerk reaction is “Yes, duh”, but having data is always better.

  34. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” is cold war porn written by a libertarian nut who only surrendered his libertarian ideals for one thing: militant nationalism. Heinlein was “free love” and “do what you want” until the communist “bugs” attack, and then he was quite happy throwing every single freedom under the bus, including the most important freedom, suffrage. He was also a sexist and a homophobe.

    The only way a story called “starship troopers” would appeal to a wide, not-into-war-porn, audience today would be if it were completely rewritten from the ground up, without any copyright interests pushing for Heinlein’s name to be respected. Heinlein was a 2A gun nut. “I am opposed to all attempts to license or restrict the arming of individuals”. That means no background checks. No registration. Nothing. If a convicted felon psychopath wants a gun, Heinlein would argue the world is a better place for it.

    Back then, if you didnt march lockstep with that version of “patriotism”, the FBI might open a file on you. Today, the folks most supportive of that line of thinking are behind the suicide warrior death cult that has been swirling around the republican party since Reagan rewrote history, W invaded two nations, and Trump stoked fear of anything “other”. Heinlein’s service-for-suffrage is the moral argument drizzled on top of the GOP’s “voter fraud” lie that has been going on for decades. I.E. we cant let the “wrong” kind of people vote.

    There are a LOT of things I didnt like about Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, but the one change up that perked my interest was having Thomas Wayne be a rich sociopath. Today’s billionaires are much more likely to completely lack any human empathy than to be any sort of pillar of a city. Zuckerberg. Bezos. The walton family. The Koch’s. Imagine those fuckers as Batman’s dad.

    So the one good thing that Heinlein going into the public domain would do is it would allow creators to call Heinlein on his bullshit. Verhoeven had Starship Troopers exactly right. Heinlein was a stone cold fascist. How Verhoeven managed to pull it off is beyond me. But his movie is nails what Heinlein’s world would actually look like.

    Gun porn. Tribalism. Complete othering of the enemy. Uniforms that look like nazi’s, but never enough awareness for anyone to wonder “are we the baddies?”

  35. This is a hypothesis that could be easily tested with an experiment. For a given author whose work is still under copyright, release one or more works into the public domain and see what happens.

    My prediction: It suddenly becomes Disney’s Stranger In A Strange Land

  36. Yes, absolutely, movies do increase interest, but then they always have. As a geezer, I can still remember seeing the 1959 BEN-HUR and then buying and reading the Lew Wallace novel from Scholastic.

    Now get off my lawn.

  37. Being 82 and a reader since 1948 I have no problem with people not agreeing with the social norms of the present vs the “then.” Things change. But the question of copyright leads me to this. As a collector I had, at one time, over 6000 copies of the early magazines, Amazing, Startling, Astounding, et al plus a fair number of hardback books. Living in a climate that, at best, is harmful to pulp paper, have sold off most of the magazines and replaced them with digital. So I’m just wondering, are the people who did the conversion in violation of the magazine’s copyright or the author’s?? Thoughts??

  38. William Nichols:

    I mean, speaking as an author, if after a movie comes out and a million people buy a copy of the book of mine that it’s based on and then never read it, I will still have the royalties for a million books. That said, I don’t believe I’ve ever bought a book that was not a gift with the intent not to read it myself.


    I hope that posting that comment provided the catharsis you were so clearly seeking.

  39. “none of his books, so far as I know, is actually out of print.”
    That’s pretty impressive when you consider works like Farnham’s Freehold and Sixth Column.

  40. “I think a better example for the impact of Public Domain on literary works is Sherlock Holmes”

    …um. Not even remotely close.

    Perhaps you missed the fact that the original Holmes stories have remained popular and available since their publication?

    Or the 1940s Basil Rathbone movies that set the popular conception of Holmes and Watson for decades?

    The 41 Jeremy Brett adaptations by Granada films, running about 10 years starting in 1984?

    Or perhaps you’d prefer Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space, published in 1984 but anthologizing stories going back 30 years (“The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound”, a 1953 Hoka story by Anderson/Dickson)?

    Holmes has been a popular and enduring character for 130 years, thoroughly embedded in pop culture and the subject of more adaptations and references than I could possibly count. Claiming that public domain status, or lack thereof, has hurt his popularity is ludicrous.

  41. I often wish that eBooks for long back-lists were cheaper. Using The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as an example, I might be willing to pay $4 for the convenience of having it on an ereader, but not $12.99.

  42. I read Ben-Hur too. As for Heinlein in other media, I was changing TV channels when I caught a bit that seemed like the ending of Red Planet. It was. (I forget how I knew, perhaps I checked the end credits) So I wonder what else is out there?

    You may recall that the Hardy Boys often had Tom Corbet, Space Cadet advertised on the back of their books. That was from Space Cadet. By the way, a scholastic non-fiction book on dating, from the time, twice said, to calm a person’s nerves, that a date didn’t expect you to be a space cadet. At the time a positive term, like being of Starfleet Academy.

    As for Heinlein’s views, let’s be careful: On reddit a commenter dismissed the man because the boy in Troopers was stupid about the possibility that a pretty girl would want to be a rocket pilot. The commenter assumed Heinlein agreed with the boy’s thinking. No, I think at most Heinlein would agree that a lot of boys of his time were stupid. (Judging by Heinlein’s nonfiction)

    To me, his works were just artistic experiments. Like when the professor near the end of Moon is begging and pleading with people to consider alternatives to the traditional government structures like taxes and voting based on geography. Not that the prof believed each one of his brainstorming ideas, and neither did Heinlein. But the prof wanted people to try to free their minds ….

    Folks who judge a writer by their characters must be surprised when they read the real world thoughts of (never mind).

    If I did judge Heinlein by characters, then I like to think of the West Point graduate in 2100, born into a theocracy, telling his roommate that he believed in being merciful to the weak, patient with the stupid, and that God would not punish him in heaven for smoking, but that rather the consequences of smoking were here and now. (I forget what else)

  43. Sean Crawford @ August 28, 2020, 3:04 pm

    There is also an movie adaptation of “The Puppet Masters” that I am told is not bad. (I don’t mean “The Brain Eaters” that he sued over, this was later.) “Robert A Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters” I think it is.

    I haven’t seen any of them, but there are various sequels to the “Starship Troopers” movie that pay more attention to the book than the first movie.

  44. @ heinleinwasafascist:

    “So the one good thing that Heinlein going into the public domain would do is it would allow creators to call Heinlein on his bullshit.”

    Could be, but why would anyone bother?

    Heinlein wasn’t a H. P. Lovecraft, whose fictional mythos spurred an avalanche of excellent work from later authors. Lovecraft’s writing was borderline execrable, but his concept of “cosmic horror” and creation continue to inspire. That’s because HPL’s themes are universal, and the bigotry with which his work is rife has persisted to this day.

    Heinlein’s work, and the science fiction of most of his contemporaries (fascists or not), does not merit a response, or rebuttal. Better work has been written since – work that owes no debt to the puerile science fiction of that era, most of which boils down to cowboys and injuns, or Hardy Boys – IN SPAAAACE. Clever parodies aside, Golden Age science fiction neither interests nor inspires.

    Moreover, Heinlein’s work is still widely available in print (at least his more popular novels), in local libraries (the one in my neighborhood had shelves of nothing but Heinlein), and via assorted pirate ebook sites. I do not, therefore, buy into the original argument about the public domain. The reason that RAH is not read more widely today is because there is little interest in reading RAH.

  45. The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” got mediocre reviews and ticket sales when it first came out in 1945. It actually lost money judged against theater ticket sales. It was an economical dud.

    Due to a clerical error, it went into the public domain in 1974.

    As a result, TV stations looking for christmas programming started playing it over and over because they could play it for free. By the 1980’s PBS was playing it half a dozen times every December.

    As a result of the extra play time from public domain status. Its a Wonderful Life became a nostalgic hit by the 90’s when people didnt give it a second thought in 1945.

    So, yes, public domain status can make stories more popular.

    If Shakespear’s estate got money every time someone muttered “all that glitters is not gold” or “methinks the lady doth protest too much” or “to be or not to be” or “there’s something rotten in denmark” or any of the hundreds of famous lines, then Shakespeare wouldnt be getting quoted in movies and stories wouldnt be using his plots nearly as much.

    The entire point of copyright in the US is to cultivate the public domain. Congrees has the power to create copyright law from the constitution, which says “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

    To promote the progress of the arts means putting work into the public domain. Thats where progress occurs.

    European copyright is a “natural” right authors and inventors get because authors and inventors there have some sort of natural ownership of the things they create.

    The US says “nah, the natural state is public domain. But we will invent copyright for a limited time because it will encourage writers to write, and then the work will return back to its natural state of the public domain, furthering progress of the arts.

    Public domain is progress.

  46. @Colin Kuskie

    In the US, copyrights (other than moral rights, which generally don’t apply to literary works) are treated as personal property under the law. They can absolutely be committed to the public domain at death, or at any time the copyright owner chooses (putting aside issues involving exclusive licenses), though there is no formal mechanism for doing so. As @John Scalzi suggests, a creative commons license may be the easiest way to accomplish that objective.

  47. I think the assertions you write about are typical of a certain sort of greybeard, usually with a ponytail under a ballcap hiding a bald patch, that desperately wants to consider itself relevant and edgy, but is simply a boomer wishing everything would stay the way it was, and that young uns would just show some respect and pay their dues.

  48. Sean: “If I did judge Heinlein by characters”

    Oh for fucks sake, can I judge Ayn Rand by thr nonsense s
    she wrote in her FICTION or not? Is the fact that all her characters are intelligent and wise and good who just HAPPEN to be libertarian nutjobs, and all forms of government in her stories are run by idiots, or lazy, or bureaucrats. Is that give us NOTHING to draw from?

    Heinlein was a nutter who wrote popular fiction that pushed the boundaries of the genre. But he was still a nutter.

    Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence saying all men are created equal and was third president of the US. He also owned slaves, raped one of his slaves. and sold his biological children into slavery. He also was a huge fan of of the French Revolution even when it turned into the reign of terror.

    At some point, we will have a full reckoning of Jefferson. At some point, when we speak of Jefferson, we will be able to talk about ALL of Jefferson, not just the cherry picked stuff. There is a movement now to update to a more accurate version of Jeffereon. But its not there yet. We still have a lot of Jeferson in our history books that is told by Jefferson’s PR division.

    We are still telling the PR version of Heinlein. And we are no where near a full history of all the good AND bad that he did.

  49. @heinleinwasafascist

    Just curious. You said “we are no where near a full history of all the good AND bad that he did.” What did he DO (not write) that was so bad?

  50. One problem with adapting Heinlein to media is that much of his work was written in what was the near future at the time, which means it is now our past. (Though many of the details are wrong; we don’t yet have regular trips to the Moon or significant commercial space travel.) That means that a straight adaptation of those works would be a period piece; although period pieces are popular in other genres, there doesn’t seem to be all that much audience interest in science fiction period pieces aside from the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. (Dick is a special case, as he has been more successful posthumously than he was during his lifetime; his message is much better aligned with the current zeitgeist than it was back then.)

    Some of his work is just too big to turn into a movie. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress would be crammed. Time Enough For Love would be impossible, though it could work as a series on HBO or Netflix.

    I LIKED the Verhoeven take on Starship Troopers. It’s a great movie. But it’s a bad adaptation of Heinlein because it turns the message into pretty much the antithesis of the original work.

  51. Any discussion in the Internet that even tangentially involves Heinlein at the start will nonetheless rapidly be completely taken over by arguments about RAH.

  52. “So, yes, public domain status can make stories more popular.”

    Mind you, It’s a Wonderful Life was also nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, so it wasn’t entirely unheralded when it started being picked up for broadcast — nor, for that matter, were Frank Capra or Jimmy Stewart, both of whom had become beloved icons by the time the picture had entered the public domain. So I’m not entirely sure this is the slam dunk you think it is, for the point you’re trying to make.

    Which incidentally, no one is arguing — including me. Things in the public domain can become more popular! It’s just that most don’t. And it certainly helps to have been a five-time Oscar-nominated Christmas film starring Stewart, directed by Capra, when you try.


    Indeed. In fact, I’m going to suggest we table the “Heinlein was a fascist” discussion in general, since it’s neither here nor there to the discussion of public domain.

  53. One of Spider Robinson’s (weaker) novels had a character in the near future playing a computer game based on Heinlein’s Glory Road, which I admit would be pretty cool done right. A movie might be even better, but it would probably be whitecast.

    Just stay away from the Farnham’s Freehold game.

    With regards to Heinlein being a fascist – even Spidey, in many ways Heinlein’s hippie acolyte, admitted that the Old Man was a militarist. I just can’t see him happy with a full-on fascist state. In Starship Troopers, citizens got the vote by volunteering for service – and the service was responsible for finding something you could do for your country even if it was “counting the hairs on a caterpillar by touch” IIRC for a hypothetical severely disabled volunteer. Would that work? Probably not, but it’s only a novel. In three other novels, Heinlein posits a democratically-elected government of Earth, one with a constitutional (ceremonial) Monarch and another with a multiracial civil service bureaucracy whose elected leaders had to worry about the opinions of “The Friends of” a cartoon character.

  54. A couple of copyright comments raised in this thread:

    (1) It’s not actually possible, under the (poor) wording of the statute, to “dedicate a work to the public domain” for works produced on or after January 1, 1978. The most that can happen is to disclaim any intention of enforcing the copyright… but that disclaimer is not binding on one’s heirs, licensees, or other successors in interest. The only way a work enters the public domain is through expiration of copyright or ineligibility for copyright. Otherwise, it enters copyright… and then, stays in copyright for one of 95 years, 120 years, or life of the author plus 70 years.

    That the Copyright Act is one of the worst-written titles of the United States Code is both ironic and a sad commentary on how little the people who write laws understand about artistic process, artistic product, and any difference between the two. Don’t believe me? First find, and then read and parse, the definition of work made for hire; once you’re done with that headache, list all the parts of the Copyright Act that depend on that definition.

    (2) Blame Victor Hugo and his attempts to become “French aristocracy” for the length of the copyright term (originally life plus 50, extended to life plus 70 due to boring international law requirements that basically boil down to “Italy extended it to keep a National-Treasure-now-unheard-of author from falling into the public domain, that became enforceable throughout Europe under the Treaty of Rome, then everybody else in Europe made it domestic, too, and then the US finally followed suit”… although The Mouse certainly helped!). There are obscure, boring, historical reasons for measuring the duration of an Estate in Land that way in continental Europe, and Hugo was trying to claim the same for authors. Meanwhile, since then, that measurement for estates in land largely went out the window around fin de siécle, so the general understanding of source disappeared too.

    (3) Most of the “scanned magazines” are copyright infringements. But that’s an argument for another time, another place… and an audience that looks at reality first to see what they’re allowed to do with someone else’s rights, rather than tries to find a post hoc rationalization for what it thinks it should be allowed to do with someone else’s rights. (This is an accusation of a combination of bad faith and ignorance. Get over it.)

  55. As I was reading I immediately thought of H. Beam Piper – the first thing I got paid to write was a part of an RPG supplement based of several of his short stories, right after they became public domain. And while, like you, I have an abiding love for Piper’s stuff, being in the public domain certainly hasn’t seen a resurgence of interest in his work. (And, like you, I acknowledge much of it is dated and its relevance to contemporary readers is mostly of academic interest.)

    (Though I’d dearly love to see a proper modern adaptation of COSMIC COMPUTER or ULLER UPRISING, done in the way Lovecraft Country seems to highlight the issues with the source material.)

    Anyway, I’m glad that you did indeed haul Piper out as an example. Not that I expect the reactionaries to pay attention to a little thing like, say, a real world example of their chosen solution not actually working.

  56. “Things in the public domain can become more popular! It’s just that most don’t.”

    IaWL wasnt popular in 1945. Ticket sales didnt pay for the budget. It became popular BECAUSE it entered the public domain. It is a specific counter example showing it is possible.

    However, if you want to discuss what “most” works do in the public domain, then fine. Most works as originally published are ignored. Even before copyright expires. Most books publish a few thousand copies and then thats it.. if we restrict ourselves to MOST books, then MOST books do nothing to advance the Arts, which is the only basis for copyright in the US, and based on MOST books, copyright is clearly too long. MOST books only need ten years of publishing before they are never heard from again.

    But we werent talking about MOST books. We were talking about stories that are still talked about decades later. But are still under copyright.

    Starship Troopers would be public domain right now if it hadnt been for the 1976 copyright extension act, which extended copyright to 75 years from date of publication. ST was published in 1957, which would have meant it would be public domain in 2032. But then Sonny fucking Bono, who wanted copyright to be “forever minus one day” extended copyright another 20 years in the 1998 extension.

    At which point, yeah MOST stories are forgotten ten years after they are published. But the ones that CONTRIBUTE to the arts in some way, are now locked up for an insanely long time.

    How do the long-living stories contribute to the arts after their initial release? Certainly MOST of them do not survive verbatim. MOST long told stories are not told now the way they were told when they first came out. Most dont watch thr original Romeo and Juliet. Most watch one of the countless derivatives. West Side Story, for example.

  57. A few notes:

    1. Absolutely agree that adaptations into other media are far more likely to have an impact on people reading the books. But… being in the public domain makes such adaptations less costly and thus more likely. I suspect magically placing Heinlein in the Public Domain would indeed get more people reading his books, but only as a second order effect of more adaptations of his material.

    2. Funny thing about It’s a Wonderful Life: As already mentioned, due to clerical error, it entered public domain in 1974, whereupon it became a mainstay on television. In the 90s, the copyright owners of the story it is based on sued and won the rights back. Since 1996, only NBC can show it. As a result, while it’s still a popular holiday favorite, it’s only shown once a year on broadcast television and has seen a corresponding decrease in viewership.

  58. “IaWL wasnt popular in 1945. Ticket sales didnt pay for the budget.”

    You’re confusing returning production costs with popularity, however. Wonderful was the 26th most popular film of its year, which would put it, then or now (well, not this year, 2020 is weird) in the top ten percent of films released. The 26th most popular films of each of the last five years previous to 2020 all grossed (domestically) around $110 million — which is not chicken feed. Whether that paid for the film’s budget depended on whether the film was something like The Nun (production cost: $22 million) or The Good Dinosaur ($175 million), both of which were the 26th most popular films of their year.

    In point of fact, Wonderful was fairly popular in its year; it had $3.3 million in rentals, in a year when making the top ten would have required $3.98 million. Its problem was it was a relatively expensive production (many A-movies at the time were made for a couple million; B-movies were made with substantially less), and so didn’t earn out. But that doesn’t mean people didn’t go to see it when it was in the theaters — again, it was in the top ten percent of the 1947’s releases — and it wasn’t unknown when it resurfaced on TV.

    “But we weren’t talking about MOST books.”

    Well, maybe you weren’t. I was, when I noted that most of those books (as well as other creative works) are fated to obscurity.


    I’d be wary of saying the film is less popular now, however, since many people who watch it now do so via home video instead of on commercial television. I do (when I watch it), as I have no interest in seeing commercials.

  59. I recall Robertson Davies talking about the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as works that were massively revived when they fell into the public domain. Mind you, that was a matter of the ‘official’ productions having become increasingly rare and ossified in the latter part of the copyright term (bad imitations of imitations of the original Victorian productions), which doesn’t obviously apply to a novel.

  60. Back in the fifties or early sixties, if I recall correctly, Wonderful was popular enough to be parodied in Mad Magazine.

    Regarding copyright, as I read in a “how to be a writer” book, having the coyyright is the default for freelance writers in Canada, but must be explicitly applied for in the U.S.

    This also goes for U.S. movies. In my film history class we saw Night of the Living Dead, such a splendid movie. (although negatively criticized in Readers Digest) Too bad the maker George R. made very little money. Because a last minute change to the movie’s title… meant a new “title card” on the film credits… that accidentally did not include a copyright thingy.

    A self help book once noted, “Nobody kicks a dead dog.” Mr. Scalzi, (to use an honorific) when folks hate you as a writer, then you are in rarified company.

  61. Sean: “coyyright is the default for freelance writers in Canada, but must be explicitly applied for in the U.S.”

    Used to be. Thats what the “all rights reserved” was for. Not anymore. I think it was the 1974 law that dropped the requirement. Now copyright is automatic for anything in fixed format.

  62. Wondering how much more Heinlein needs to be read to satisfy the originator of the PD demands. As mentioned, he’s all over the place. Sounds more like a true-fan who is convinced that Heinlein’s prose will generate converts “if only”.

    As far as the copyright issue goes, yeah, author’s life plus three-score-and-ten seems a bit much. I’d rather see that corporate-owned copyright has a fair limit.

  63. Rather off-topic, but I’d like to mention that I find the current link format unhelpful: links just look like bold text to me, rather than links. I had to get about a third of the way through the piece before I hovered over one of them to see whether it was, in fact, a link. A different color might help others know that links are links. (Now that *I* know, I know, but they’re just not that obvious.)


  64. When I want to put things functionally into the public domain (which I’ve done for many of my older works, and for some collections of data I’ve created), I use a CC0 dedication. Whether there’s technically still a copyright in existence doesn’t particularly matter much to me; for pretty much all intents and purposes there might as well not be, since I’ve waived all rights. I’ve never heard of any successful copyright lawsuit concerning something that had been intentionally made CC0. (I won’t say it could never happen– there are various ways of regaining waived rights in some circumstances– but it doesn’t seem to be a pressing worry of anyone I’ve heard from.)

    I can’t say CC0 has given my work significant new popularity, but that’s not why I do it.

  65. When I did my dissertation on Victorian/Edwardian supernatural fantasy (completed in 1975), most of my reading was of work in the public domain and recognized by fantasy and/or period scholars as significant–Blackwood, Machen, Hodgson, Stoker, M. R. James–even though much of it was not in print or was available only in small-press editions, so that much of my material came from the university’s rare-book collection or from specialty booksellers. It was the fantasy revival that followed Tolkien’s success that encouraged editors such as Lin Carter to rummage around in the fantastic attic for commercially viable material–and he did resurrect Machen and Hodgson, among others. My research time overlapped that mini-renaissance of fantasy publishing, so my bibliography cited both OP editions and mass-market paperbacks.

    Copyright and in/out of print status are not always closely coupled to notability or popularity, and a much-sought-after title can remain an iffy commercial proposition.

  66. The timing of that Tweet amused me. Literally last month, a book club I’m in instituted a new rule specifically because Heinlein was being selected too often. The club has a nomination & voting process each month, and now, if a book is selected, the author cannot have a book nominated again for a full year.

  67. Given the purpose of copyright, which is NOT “to secure for the author’s heirs an income in perpetuity”, I hold that for individual authorship, Lifetime should be the limit of copyright, and for corporate ownership, 20 years, because by that point, they’ve either exploited it thoroughly, or buried it in the archives as a money-loser.

    This philosophical belief of mine guides my ethics in regards to technical violations of current copyright law–is the work being locked up in copyright long past its natural expiration date? Then I have no compunction, no guilt about hoisting the jolly roger and finding a good torrent seed. Conversely, if the author is still alive, I consider it wrong to pirate their works.

    I encourage everyone to follow such a standard; make a law sufficiently unpopular and difficult to enforce, and it will be changed. Copyright law needs to be clawed back, and control of it ripped out of the hands of media megacorporation lobbyists. Also, fuck Sonny Bono’s rotting corpse for his perversion of copyright law.

  68. I certainly agree that copyright lasts for too long. The latest US extension from 75 to 95 years, as I understand it, was mostly courtesy of Steamboat Willie and a few other powerful interests/corporations (like the Gershwin estate). And because Disney kept wanting to delay their cash cow mouse entering the public domain, everything else suffered.

    These long copyrights are especially annoying in the academic realm… I’m working on the critical edition of a major philosopher, and we keep having to wait until portions of his work enter the public domain before we can publish edited versions that correct the numerous errors that still appear in the existing versions.

    I believe the life of the author+70 years that John quoted is actually for material written by an author and *not* published in his lifetime. But for published work it’s 95 years from date of publication. Either way, it’s too much! Supporting a creator’s great-grandchildren was never the intent of copyright, but the people who write the laws have lost all sight of that.

  69. My own two bits’ worth (was 2 cents–inflation). Heinlein is one of a handful of Golden Age authors whose works will still be read decades from now. Likely, Bradbury, Asimov, and Clarke will accompany him. There are already SF authors who have been around for well over a century whose works are still read: Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells. Not far behind those two is Edgar Rice Burroughs, even with all his literary faults. Verne and Wells had a good many contemporaries who wrote what we would now call SF, but most of them are forgotten, except by scholars (see “The Battle of Dorking” and “The Brick Moon”).

    In my own family, there’s already a multi-generation tradition of Heinlein reading. I read RAH (and ERB, and Doc Smith, and others) to my younger brothers to keep them out of my mother’s hair (this was in the latter half of the 60s). One brother (the one who had kids) read RAH (and probably others) to his kids. His youngest daughter, recently wed and now expecting her first child, plans to read SF, esp. RAH, to her children. I’m likely to will my copy of the Virginia Edition to this particular niece.

    I greatly enjoy classic SF&F, and often prefer it to the modern stuff. I have little trouble with the anachronisms, even the social ones–I look at the publishing date, think “period piece,” and things make sense.

    There are some things Heinlein wrote that I cringe to reread. One is “Sixth Column,” even though I know darn good and well that the thing was all Campbell’s fault. JWC insisted RAH change the invaders from aliens to Asians, and Heinlein hadn’t yet learned how to say “No” to an editor (much less the “Fuck you!” that Campbell’s asinine interference deserved). Another is “Farnham’s Freehold.” I know that piece of garbage was a feeble attempt at satire. RAH revered such satirists as Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, and James Branch Cabell. Alas, with this novel, he tried to emulate them, and failed. In my book, few things flop worse than failed satire.

  70. Linux succeeded because it was not only public domain, but even copyleft. Derivatives were required to remain open source. And that requirement encouraged all sorts of people to improve the code base umder linux.

    Linux succeeded ONLY BECAUSE copyleft protected the work and all its derivatives. The man hours behind linux operating system and all its associated copyleft apps exceeds the man hours it took to land a man on the moon. Some say by orders of magnitude. Linux succeeded because copyleft guarantees the work and all its derivatives remain open source, remain copyleft

    So, lets not kid ourselves that we NEED copyright or that massives works cannot be created WITHOUT copyright. We have a massive, real world example of a work protected under an open source license that changed the face of computing.

    Whether Heinlein would be read more if it were public domain is irrelevant. What is important to know is that massive works requiring the contributions of thousabds of people can be created, for free, if only contributers know their contribution will remain free.

    Clearly copyright isnt something we NEED to create rich and conplex works. And the last two copyright extensions werent driven by a lack of creativity on thd part of authors, but rather were an outcome of massive corporate lobbying efforts by Disney etc who wanted to milk the Mickey Mouse cash cow rather than do the work to make new content.

    If copyright terms were reduced to 50 years, would any author stop writing books??? Maybe, but i think the quitters would be replaced by other authors who would be fine with 50 year copyright terms.

    Thats the truth about copyright: we dont NEED 95 year terms to get people to write new stuff.

  71. RE: Copyright Length – I can get behind 25 years with the option to extend another 50 years. That’s the likely lifespan of any author, and will give his estate something to build upon….

  72. Two points come to mind, both under the rubric of cui bono?: 1. stakeholders’ interests, and 2. target markets.

    Intellectual property laws are a hot mess. How else could various entities be able to claim exclusive rights to popular birthday songs, certain shades of purple, and al fresco dining with ursine cuddly toys?

    In a tug-of-war with, on the one side, the general reading, movie-and-TV-watching, game-playing public, and on the other side the content creator and his/her heirs & assigns, who comes out on top? If Disney’s involved, the outcome is predictable.

    Those who love Starship Troopers: The Movie mightn’t have much use for fans of Starship Troopers: The Novel, and vice versa, but each time the book, the movie, or one of the tie-in games is sold, a few pennies clink into the jar at the Heinlein Trust – I assume. Schisms over which version is preferred? Pfft. The real action is elsewhere.

    It’s true that secondhand bookshops will round out any completist’s collection. Caveat emptor in this as in everything else. I first read Time Enough for Love in an American mass-market paperback edition with great cover art and fantastic editing – scarcely a typo to be found. Many years later I picked up a UK edition with crappy cover art and so many editing errors that it bordered on unreadable. The funniest such gaffe comes as Lazarus appreciatively sniffs the sweaty garter his mother Maureen has given him as a love token and parting gift. Lazarus muses that “a skilled scientologist” (sic) might be able to separate her personal aroma from the odors of fabric and rubber. Heh. ^_^

  73. Gilbert and Sullivan are an interesting case as many of their stories (Pirates of Penzance, Ruddigore) parodied stage cliches that are now forgotten. But they still work.
    Stage adaptations also work to spark interest in books. I have friends who read Les Miserables after seeing the stage show (they regretted it); I’m reading Antonia Fraser’s “Six Wives of Henry VIII” because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of “Six: The Musical.”
    Conversely I’m watching “King Richard and the Crusaders” later this weekend because I recently read the biography of Saladin (he’s played by Rex Harrison in the film).

  74. The issue with adapting Heinlein’s works to other media has a prime example each of the excreable and awesome sort. The majority of serious Heinlein fans – the number of people I’ve come to know who have taken many of the principles he espoused as a philosophy to live by is impressive – loathe the film of Starship Troopers as an abomination that totally ignores the points he was seeking to engender discussion on; some take it as something to enjoy separately from the book, in the way one enjoys any B movie satirized by MST3K.

    OTOH, a few years back a film called Predestination was made by a pair of Australian filmmaker brothers, based on Heinlein’s definitive time paradox short story “All You Zombies …”. Starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, it was an excellent adaptation of a very twisty story, even using dialogue lifted straight from the page. Yes, the movie had added material, but it was all extrapolated from the smallest mention in the story of events involving the characters. This faithfulness to the source material made it all in all a very satisfactory adaptation, one well received by Heinlein Fandom. I cite Predestination to show that it _is_ possible to adapt Heinlein works without bastardizing them in the way Starship Troopers was. However, Predestination was not well-marketed or widely released here in the US, and the name change – necessary due to the original title’s meaning being so far removed from the modern expectation of anything using the word “zombies” – meant those familiar with the story wouldn’t recognize the film by its title. I doubt the film led new fans to Heinlein’s books because of that.

    For any adaptation of his works to be successful in bringing a new audience to his books, it would ideally need to be done with respect for the original material, and released where the widest audience could access it, likely on streaming. To do justice to a work like, say, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it would need to be a limited series. I would expect the Estate to be very careful in who it sells such rights to. Rerelease of the book that has been adapted is part of the marketing when an adaptation comes out, and other books by the same author can be marketed at that time too. Any news of a proposed adaptation of one of Heinlein’s work is received with excited hope (look at how well Predestination was done!) heavily tempered with suspicious cynicism (thank you, Paul Verhoeven … NOT!).

    As an FYI for those not in the know, the Estate _is_ actively seeking ways to reach new audiences, as with the graphic novel adaptations of Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Spacesuit Will Travel – have you got your Mother Thing plush yet?

    On a personal note, not all libraries are equal in maintaining a decent selection of Golden Age authors – my local library only has a half dozen, if that. The only reason they have Lock In and Head On, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic Mars trilogy, is because I pushed for them to get them. (Luckily the library now has a staff member in charge of the general and science fiction who is actually interested in the latter.) So the library is not always a reliable source of such materials.

  75. Scalzi: “most of those books (as well as other creative works) are fated to obscurity.”

    But copyright law doesnt exist to protect books that are fated to obscurity. Copyright exists to advance the Arts and patent law exists to advance Science. It says that in the US Constitution.

    Copyright exists to encourage people to create art that betters society. That is the ONLY reason society puts up with all the nonsense of IP laws in the first place. IP laws are artificial. The natural state of ideas is public domain. But if these artificial IP laws can advamce the Arts and Sciences, then society will go along with them.

    If all copyright did was encourage writers to write obscure books that are read for 5 or 10 years by a small number of people, then a century of copyright is pointless.

    So when discussing copyright law, and whether it is too long, too much, too restrictive, we already know that the books fated to obscurity do not matter. They already say the law is too restrictive.

    Which leaves only the works that have some lasting impact. Works that become part of the cultural norm. Works that advance the Arts. Those are the only works that could possibly justify a century of copyright restrictions. Those are the only works that make it into the discussion as having an impact on current copyright terms. MOST WORKS become irrelevent to discussing the validity of the law because the law does not exist to add obscure works.

    Mark Twain wrote numerous works that have become part of yhe American culture and he did it with a copyright that only lasted 28years with a possible 14 year extension. 42 years from date of publication. 42 years is PLENTY long enough to encourage people to try to write the sorts of works that “Advance the Arts”.

    So society would be willing to put up with all the nonsense that goes with a 42 year copyright term because it will produce works like Huckleberry Finn that advance the Arts and make society better. To make copyright any longer than 42 years, creators have to explain how their work is so expensive and time consuming that they cant break even with a 42 year monopoly. And whatever work they produce needs to be qualitatively BETTER than the likes of Huck Finn, have bigger and longer lasting cultural impact than Tom Sawyer, to justify making copyright longer than 42 years.

    But from the copyright act of 1909 and every extension after that, the conversation was no longer an examination of the trade between society and creator. The conversation ignored the tradeoff between society and creators, the mandate that the law was only intended to create works that advance the Arts. The conversation ignored the simple fact that longer copyrighr terms do NOT encourage MORE creators to create MORE and BETTER works. The conversation ignored the sacrifice society makes with copyright law.

    And instead, the conversation from 1909 and forward focused on one simple measure: will it make someone more MONEY. and it is important to note that for MOST works, the author would likely be dead by the time a 42 year term expired. Most authors would have been relegated to obscurity well before the 42 term expired. And what is most often left are works making money for a corporation long after the creator is dead.

    Copyright law doesnt exist to make profit. Copyright allows for profit to make Art that lasts, art that advances society.

    But instead, terms keep getting longer and longer so Disney can milk their mickey mouse cash cow. That violates the reason for copyrights existence. If a 42 term gives us works like Huck Finn, then a longer term can only be justified if it produces works even better than Huck Finn, and only if someone wouldnt create that sort of work with a 42 year term.

    So, again, when discussing copyright law, MOST WORKS dont qualify for the conversation. Most works are relegated to obscurity and copyright law doesnt exist to create works for obscurity. If copyright only produced works that were read for 5 or 10 years, then a 20 year copyright would be plenty. So the only works that can even think of justifying a century long copyright term have to be the few works that have a lasting impact on society.

    And then the simple question is: would anyone create these works with a 50 year term instead? And the answer seems to be “yes”. So why have a century of artificial monopoly when 50 would do?

    But “most works” dont even justify a 20 year term. So talking about most works and 95 year terms makes no sense. Thats not why the law exists.

  76. Try to download an ENGLISH public domain version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Every translation comes with copyrights that are to be paid towards the translator (lifetime + 70 years). And then you have probably some bot going around the internet that destroys all translations that are into the public domain. And so it is for many literary works that are theoretically into the public domain.

  77. A couple of clarifications on copyright:

    For US works (which has a convoluted definition, which would easily take up 1500 words and not exhaust the exceptions), the critical date is January 1, 1978. Works first published/made available to the public (another 1500 words) before then fall under a strict 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation if not published before January 1, 1978 limit; there’s no life plus 70 there. Afterward (afterword?), it’s life-plus-70 for non-works-for-hire and the same 95/120 for works for hire. This is what the poster above referring to the philosophy texts is running into. A Theory of Justice (1971) enters the public domain in 2067, 95 years after publication; Political Liberalism (1992, notwithstanding the publisher claiming 1993 in the front of the book in an all-too-common 1909 Act dodge), by the same author, enters the public domain in 2073, 70 years after the author died.

    Outside the US, for non-US works, it’s pretty much life-plus-some-number-of-years, usually 50 or 70 (sometimes 80, as in Spain). There isn’t much uniformity to “corporate works,” partly because “work made for hire” is a US judge-made invention under the 1909 Act that was ineptly adapted in the 1976 Act and roundly rejected everywhere else. How are films measured, then? It’s complicated…

    The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the exact date doesn’t matter; all copyrights expire at midnight on December 31 of each year.

    One poster above asserted that Linux became popular only due to copyleft. At the time Unix was created, computer programs and languages were not copyrightable — pre January 1978! — because judges didn’t think they embodied original expression, but were instead instructions used to create useful product from a limited possible range of expression. Computing “stuff” was, in the 1970s, closer to patent than copyright, notwithstanding AT&T’s nonsense about Berkeley and… (proposed horror film: I Was a Teenage Hacker). Saying it’s about “copyleft” rather misses the point.

  78. Concerning Heinlein in other media, there was a segment of Time Enough For Love that might suit: The Adopted Daughter, where Lazarus Long devotes a normal lifespan to one woman. The late Jerry Pournelle thought it could’ve been a successful stand alone.

  79. Jaws: “One poster above asserted that Linux became popular only due to copyleft. At the time Unix was created, computer programs and languages were not copyrightable — pre January 1978!”

    UNIX was a proprietary operating system owned by at&t created in 1971. And they were pretty adamant about enforcing proprietary ownership.

    Copyleft started in 1989 with the gnu/gpl license. And then linus torvalds created the linux kernel in 1992, releasing it under the gnu gpl copyleft license.

    Unix was around for 20 years. Then gpl copyleft was created, and the LINUX was created a year later.

    Copyleft ENABLED linux. Copyleft made linux, an open source version of unix, possible.

    And copyleft can be thought of as permanent public domain. The work, and all derivatives, remain public domain. Normal public domain applies to the original work, and derivatives get copyright monopoly. Copleft keeps derivatives in public domain. And that is what made the difference since computer code is constantly changing and evolving and each evolution is a derivative. Copyleft keeps the improvements open to all.

    And most web servers are running some version of linux. Not unix but linux. This is what the public domain is capable of.

    So the thing that people miss about the public domain is it doesnt make the AUTHOR popular, it allows their IDEAS to become popular.

    If Linus Torvalds had been hit by a bus the day after releasing his kernel under gpl, linux would have continued on without him. The work grows and improves in the public domain. Copyleft keeps the derivatives free and open.

    Copyright is all about the author and their ego. They control the derivatives. They keep derivatives from making the original author from looking bad.

    Copyright is for the author.
    Public domain and copyleft is about the work.

  80. Mr. Scalzi can say if my questions are getting too off topic. But I’ll ask since we have a person knowledgeable about copyleft here, who could probably answer faster than I could research.

    I hope it’s been enough time now to know, but has copyleft stood up legally? That is, the idea that the derivatives must also remain open, under copyleft? Has anyone tried to lock up a derivative, and that effort then been struck down?

  81. The thing about the uncanny valley is that we are in it, too. What will our grandchildren think of us? (Other than that we make good cookies and give great hugs?) The best stories are those that somehow manage to have a meaning deeper than that valley.

    As for copyright, it has to be fixed. We need a way of balancing the needs of the small artists to make a living with the desires of the large companies to milk every last penny out of a property and with the right of the public to benefit from these creations. But I’ll be durned if I know how to do it.

  82. “Copyright is all about the author and their ego. They control the derivatives. They keep derivatives from making the original author from looking bad. ” I’ve seen lots of derivatives that make the original author look damn good by comparison (most non-REH Conan, for example).
    Part of the problem with setting copyright length is that there really isn’t any logical reason for picking 42 or 75 or whatever length. Law (as Perry Mason once observed) is arbitrary: the point at which petty theft becomes grand theft, the length of a sentence — someone has to set cutoff points but it’s a judgment call.

  83. I think the way to adapt a work to a new medium is to relax, not idolize, and realize that, for example, moving pictures differ from print. Back in the 1980’s, when I read in (SF Age magazine?) that folks making The Puppet Masters were innocently happy at keeping Heinlein’s book dialogue I cringed, and predicted nothing good.

    In fairness, while Heinlein killed the print market for the “alien parasite gag” (which Hollywood continues to re-do it every few years (including STNG)) for Hollywood Heinlein’s classic print version is just too hard to adapt. (first person interior POV)

    For a more recent example, I suspect the movie version of Firefly, Serenity, did not do as well as hoped because the makers forgot to strictly focus on movie values, and instead compromised by being concerned for the former TV audience. This when the vast majority of movie-goers would not have watched (or liked) the TV version, which you may recall hadn’t even lasted for a full season.

  84. Dear heinlein…

    Uhhh, you’ve made the same points five times now. Don’t you think we get it?

    It’s not like you weren’t clear enough the first time.

    pax / Ctein

  85. “Has copyleft stood up legally?”

    What’s kind of interesting is that “copyleft” (a rather broad term) is predicated on the legal standing of copyright law; the copyright holder releases something under a license that grants different permissions and restrictions than a traditional copyright license.

    CC-* is also (legally) a license granted by the copyright holder.

    So it’s kinda a not well asked question. There are copyleft licenses that have either stood up, or haven’t been sufficiently challenged, and there are some that are perceived as not worth dealing with so people avoid using the item(s) under those licenses.

    The copyleft license with the longest real world usage is the GPL…

  86. I’m leaving the debate over public domain to others here, but re: Heinlein on film:

    1) A lot of people talk about Heinlein’s “big three” novels, and more than a few are familiar with his 1950’s juveniles, but I think some of his early stories (especially the novellas “If This Goes On—”, “Universe”, and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”) are prime film material and ripe for rediscovery. None would be especially difficult to update, and all have themes relevant and compelling today (religious-based totalitarian cult-of-personality dystopia in the first, very different takes on “the world is not what it seems” in the other two). I’d especially love to see someone like Jordan Peele take on “Hoag” in particular.

    2) If someone decides to film The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in the next few years, I really hope they try to get Michael Peña to play Manny.

  87. “Has copyleft stood up legally?”

    There have been some challenges and the concept has held.

    Standard Gnu-gpl is probably the strongest, most legally grounded.

    The way the license works is that it requires modifications to be distributed to require the modified version to be released as part od the copyleft work.. local modifications can remain proprietary.

    In the 80’s this was fine. But the internet changed a fundamental way software is used. Corps can make private changes and use them on a web server for customers. Since they arent distributing the work, the change is considered private and is not required to be made part of the copyleft project.

    So there have been some newer licenses trying to address this.

    Corporations can also put the kibash on copyleft by having employee agreements that say ANY code an employee writes if owned by the company. Which precludes the employee from contributing to open source projects after hours. Which makes it harder for the project to maintain itself.

    Copyleft is based purely on copyright law. But corporations who want to stop copyleft projects can use non-copyright responses to make it harder for the free/opensource project to succeed.

  88. Great application of the uncanny valley concept.
    It applies to architecture as well. A building goes through a period of tacky datedness from about 50 to 70 years, then, if it has escaped the wrecking ball or “updates”, it becomes distinguished and charming, even historic.

  89. You mentioned the idea of some of his stuff falling into a “cultural uncanny valley, existing in a simultaneous state of being too distant from contemporary readers, and also not nearly distant enough.”… I recently went back and read a few of Heinleins books, my odd favorites being Citizen of the Galaxy and Time for the Stars. And you’re right. Paper copy everywhere. Even Baslims (spoilers) eye camera needed it’s film replaced…. the lack of a lot of digital things throws me when rereading his books.

  90. It’s strange how anachronisms in written science fiction don’t throw me. Maybe I’m somehow “method acting” chrono-wise.

    More likely, my formative time-space culture imprinted on me, and now I’m forever dimly surprised that the world is as advanced as it is.

    … Despite avidly watching Hill Street Blues, I still expect cop cars to be black and white; despite the invention of crystals and fluffy ear buds, I still expert a radio operator to have old-sized headphones, and I still expect hand grenades to have a bunch of “pineapple” squares. At least I no longer wince when microphones look like coffee stir sticks, the way I did when UFO aired back in the 1970’s.

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