By the year 2007 the great “balanced budget” depression had gotten to the point where the government was desperate for new sources of revenue. One of the ingenious schemes that it came up was the “eternal copyright”. Congress enacted legislation making all works, past and present, protected under eternal copyright. Works which previously been in the public domain were now copyrighted. Since their authors had improvidently neglected to renew their copyrights, said works were claimed by the government under the salvage laws. It then proceeded to exact royalties.
The Copyright Royalties Administration Program did not produce a great deal of revenue; however times were tough and every little bit helped. Initially there were problems; CRAP was not popular in academic circles. This was readily dealt with by pointing out to the disaffected parties where grants came from.
The real conflict was with the European Union. At first the US tried to claim all public domain works, whatever their origin, as US salvage. This the EU took strong exception to. The EU Initially objected to the eternal copyright. However their finances were no better than those of the US and they quickly came to appreciate the merits of the American innovation. Meetings were held, diplomats diplomatted, details were ironed out, and in due course the Berne Books Convention was ratified.
For several years CRAP produced a small but critical revenue stream. By 2011, however, both the US and the EU were in truly desperate financial straits. Income was not enough. The time had come to sell off intellectual capital. Thus it was that the literature of the past went on the auction block.
It was a brilliant move. At first individual works were auctioned off. The governments quickly discovered, however, that the prices were better if the complete works of an author were sold as a unit. Thus was born that institution of modern book selling, the writer’s block where the works of great writers are put on the block.
It had been expected that the purchasers would be publishing houses and academic institutions. They reckoned without collectors. Many of the large cybernational corporations counted it a matter of prestige to have a “house author”. Most made their new acquisitions available for a modest royalty. There were exceptions. James Fenimore Cooper was acquired by a Twain enthusiast who was determined that Cooper would never again see print.
Prices varied wildly. Some authors simply didn’t sell. Henry James did not make minimum bid at Sotheby’s; a non-profit corporation was set up to distribute his works. Initially the great authors, the classics, were held off the market by the governments. However times were hard.
Greece was the first to make the break. They restored national prosperity by selling Plato to an Indonesian prophylactics manufacturer who delightedly announced that he was now the Father of Philosophy. Nietzsche was acquired by the International Front. Voltaire was acquired by the Catholic Church, never to be seen again.
The Americans were embarrassed when they sold off Jefferson and then discovered that they no longer had rights to the Declaration of Independence. The truly sad moment was when Shakespeare went. The English had sworn that they would never sell Shakespeare. Chaucer, yes, but Shakespeare, never. So they swore, but the time came when King William got married and there was no other way to pay for the new Queen’s bridal gown. Shakespeare went for a fabulous price. He was acquired by a consortium who broke him up and sold him off, play by play, sonnet by sonnet. Fortunately the new owners let their plays be performed and their sonnets read with the exception of The Taming Of The Shrew which had been acquired by a feminist action group.
What no one had foreseen was the after market. The trade in authors revived prosperity. Sotheby’s grew rich. And everybody blessed that foundation of modern finance and culture, the writer’s block.
This page was last updated January 1, 2007.
Copyright © 1997,2007 Richard Harter