Column: The latest news on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ shows how big corporations control copyright law

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The copyright history of Harper Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" long ago crossed into the byzantine realm. But the latest development in the saga points to how copyright law has been perverted to serve the wrong people.

In 2013 the author of "Mockingbird,"  Harper Lee, sued her literary agent, alleging that he had taken advantage of her infirmities in 2007 to "dupe" her into assigning him the rights to the 1960 book. (She had suffered a stroke and was recovering in an assisted living facility.) She regained the rights in a 2012 arbitration, but he was still pocketing royalties, her lawyers claimed.

The disappearance of the iconic mass-market edition is very disappointing to us, especially as we understand this could force a difficult situation for schools and teachers with tight budgets.

— Notice sent by Hachette, publisher of an inexpensive edition of "To Kill a Mockinbird," to booksellers

That lawsuit was settled out of court in 2013, only to be followed by the strange saga of "Go Set a Watchman," Lee's only other published work, issued last year. All sorts of questions swirled around "Watchman." Had it been the first draft of "Mockingbird"? A "sequel"? Did Lee--by then said to be isolated by age and the passing of her older sister/lawyer/buffer against the outside world, Alice--really want the book published? Doubts were cast upon the narrative of the manuscript's discovery, supposedly a chance finding by Tonja Carter, Alice Lee's successor as Harper Lee's lawyer, who also controlled access to Lee herself.

The latest chapter in the saga has just been written. Following the author's death at the age of 89 on Feb. 19, the Harper Lee estate has eliminated the mass-market edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird." List-priced at  $8.99 by its publisher Hachette Book Group (but available for as little as five dollars and change), this is the edition through which a couple of generations of schoolchildren first encountered the book in class--and often encountered the joys of reading for the first time.

According to a March 4 notice issued by Hachette to booksellers and reported by the New Republic, permission for the mass-market edition has been withdrawn by the novel's publisher, HarperCollins. (HarperCollins also brought out "Go Set a Watchman.") Hachette can sell off its remaining copies, which it's doing at a further discount, but henceforth "Mockingbird" will be available chiefly in a HarperCollins trade paperback edition, which lists for $14.99.

The burden will fall on school districts that traditionally laid in a large volume of mass-market books for their pupils. Hachette says that more than two-thirds of the 30 million copies sold worldwide since publication have been its low-priced edition. Hachette told bookstores, according to the New Republic: "The disappearance of the iconic mass-market edition is very disappointing to us, especially as we understand this could force a difficult situation for schools and teachers with tight budgets who cannot afford the larger, higher priced paperback edition that will remain in the market."

The real problem this development points to is with copyright law, which has been getting consistently rewritten in the United States and other countries to extend the length of authors' rights to the point where their heirs, and heirs of heirs, are the chief beneficiaries of the copyright. But that's only superficially. The real beneficiaries are corporations, which continue to profit from successful works of art for decades after their creators have passed on. Corporations such as HarperCollins. 

The concept of copyright is vested in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, which gives Congress the power "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." In other words, its purpose is not primarily to ensure unending profits for creators and their descendants, but to promote the spread of knowledge. Creators are ensured enough compensation to give them an incentive to create and keep them whole while doing so, but that's a means to an end. (Full disclosure: I'm the copyright holder on seven published books.)



The squabble over Anne Frank's diary shows the absurdity of copyright law


Over the years the original concept has been turned on its head. The original Copyright Act of 1790 granted a term of 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author was still alive. In 1831 the term was lengthened to 28 years plus a 14-year renewal by the author or his or her immediate survivors; subsequently the renewal term was extended to 28 years.

Then came the Walt Disney Co. Fretting that the copyright on Mickey Mouse was facing expiration in 1984, it lobbied hard for a revision. Congress responded in 1976 by extending the term to the creator's life plus 50 years. Other provisions extended Mickey's copyright to 2003. The law retroactively extended the maximum term of previous copyrights from 56 years to 75, which would make the copyright on "Mockingbird" effective until 2035.

That still wasn't enough for corporate rights holders, so we got the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (Bono of "Sonny & Cher" was by then deceased, but had championed the extension as a U.S. congressman). The Bono Act created a copyright term of life plus 70 years; for corporate works, the term is 95 years from the year of first publication; Mickey Mouse, who first appeared in the short "Steamboat Willie" in 1928, is protected until 2023.

Yet as we can see from the extinction of the mass-market paperback of "Mockingbird," such extensions stifle the dissemination of creative works rather than encourage it. The squabble over the copyright to Anne Frank's diaries, which we reported on here, also illustrates how the grip of copyright law leaves the control of creative works in the hands of people who may not share the desires of the works' creators. Harper Lee has passed on, Anne Frank is long gone, and Walt Disney is represented in the marketplace by a corporation  that is hopelessly far removed from his artistic and even his business creation.

They all live on in their creative works, yet now, weeks or decades after their deaths, their direct interest in the life arcs of their creations obviously is gone with them. How much longer should those creations be locked behind the walls of copyright law?

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email

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