As a writer who constantly needs to have multiple books open at my work-table, as well as poetry, news stories, films, and my own notes, I’m always annoyed at how much SIMPLER this process could be if many of these materials were freely available online. Now, lots of people complain about issues of ‘access’, but, even more important is the fact that new artists must reasonably engage with older works. This includes extended quotation, the re-use of elements and narratives, and other forms of appropriation that, if we’re dealing with the public domain, can all be done without the fear of lawsuits. Combine this fact with the proliferation of e-readers, and quality publishers, such as Delphi Classics, who neatly collate and optimize complete editions of writers’ and painters’ works for a mere $2-$3, and you have not only a way of deepening culture at an exponential rate, but a new business model, as well, wherein publishers have an incentive to perfect these otherwise free works by adding ‘extras’ (images, biographical notes, technical scholarship, etc.) that would simply be impossible in print books.
But, instead, America has a public domain model that allows copyright throughout the author’s lifetime (understandable, and justified) PLUS 75 years… that is, long enough for descendants to skim off of an artist’s riches, then further entomb them in a network of family lineage, publisher demands, and the divvying up of who-gets-what, as opposed to a more rational approach that would ensure culture benefits, first– which is, of course, the true aim of most great artists, who, being dead, can live in one way only. On a personal level, I’ve been annoyed, for instance, at the fact that I could not excerpt Wallace Stevens’s great Yellow Afternoon in full, in my own novel, Doors & Exits, no matter how relevant, or how long ago he’s entered the social imagination, decades after he’s died. On a deeper level, though, there’s something else amiss, and it has to do with the future of one of the best and most neglected poets of the 20th century: James A. Emanuel, whose current issues re: the public domain should alarm anyone with a genuine interest in art.
According to Dan Schneider’s recent essay on James Emanuel and the public domain, Emanuel was, prior to Schneider’s 2001 discovery, championing, and interview with the man in 2007, pretty much unknown. There were no interviews, very few poems online, and no essays on the man outside of what might be found in obscure academic circles, in a godawful niche called ‘black studies’– because, after all, that’s what the clueless academics have pinned him as, a BLACK poet who “wrote about racism” (to quote the New York Times obituary), despite Emanuel having many poems attacking this very condescension.
Today, however, his reputations seems better. This is despite the fact that his Collected Poems are still out of print, and can run for around $200 on Amazon, up from the $15 or $20 … Continue reading →