Thursday, October 15, 2015

Orwell, Trotsky, and the TPPA

Several years ago I sat down with Kiwi publisher Brett Cross to plan a local edition of George Orwell's great and greatly misunderstood novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell died in 1950, which meant that Ninety Eighty-Four and the rest of his oeuvre could not be freely republished in Britain until 2020. In New Zealand, though, the copyright on a text expired fifty years after its author's death, which meant that Orwell had been fair game for publishers since 2000.

Brett was founding a new publishing imprint called Atuanui Press, which would be dedicated to important writing from the past, and he was looking for material. I wanted to show the relevance of Orwell's masterpiece to twenty-first century New Zealand by writing an introduction and set of annotations that linked its themes to laws like the post-9/11 Terrorism Suppression Act and events like the police raid on Tuhoe Country in 2007, the confiscation of Jimmy O'Dea's trousers, and the multiplication of shopping malls in Auckland (Ninety Eighty-Four is, after all, a satire of Western consumerism, as well as Stalinist tyranny).

I also wanted to advertise some of our homegrown works of Orwellian fiction, like Craig Harrison's neglected 1970s novel Broken October, which imagines a civil war between Maori guerrillas and a dictatorial neo-colonial state, and MK Joseph's The Time of Achamoth, which takes its readers to a time travel station run by British special forces out of a particularly desolate corner of the King Country.
The demands of other projects meant I ended up postponing my New Zealand edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I'm pleased, now, that I kicked the project to the kerb, because the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement that the Key government has just helped to negotiate will strengthen the grip of copyright on books and on other cultural artefacts like movies, songs, and computer games. Under the terms of the TTPA, a text will be bound by copyright until seventy years after its author's demise. Ninety Eighty-Four and the rest of Orwell's texts will be out of reach until at least 2021. A small publisher like Brett Cross could never afford the fat fee that the managers of Orwell's estate would demand for the right to republish one of his books.

Warner Brothers and other big players in the American entertainment industry lobbied hard for the extension of copyright during TPPA negotiations. These companies own the rights to many of the world's great movies, songs, and television programmes, and want to collect royalties for as long as they can. Warner Brothers has even suggested that copyright should last a century after an author's death. Complicated corporate-driven legislation means that books often take a long time to throw off copyright in America. Ninety Eighty-Four won't be free to republish there until 2044. In 2009 American Kindle users had their copies of Orwell's masterpiece wiped.

Some defenders of posthumous copyright claim that it 'protects' the dependents of an author from the depredations of the free market. Authors should certainly have the right to royalties from their work while they live, and perhaps their families have a right to an income for a couple of decades longer than that. When copyright on a text lasts for many decades after an author's death, though, it often ends up generating royalties for people with a very tenuous connection to the author, and very little interest in honouring that author's work and worldview.

Before his murder in Mexico in 1940, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky left the rights to some of his writings to his allies in the American Socialist Workers Party. During his exile in Mexico Trotsky had acted as a mentor to the SWP, and members of the organisation had helped publish and sell his texts. In the decades after Trotsky's death, though, the SWP slowly declined in size and importance. Former members complained that the party's leadership had become avaricious and corrupt, and was spending the royalties from Trotsky's texts and other revolutionary classics on luxury apartments. When the internet era arrived, and cyberactivists tried to add Trotsky's works to a burgeoning online archive of Marxist writing, the SWP threatened to sue them for breach of copyright. I don't think Trotsky would have been amused.

Chris Trotter offers some other reasons to oppose the TPPA here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Draco TB said...

and perhaps their families have a right to an income for a couple of decades longer than that.

Nope, that's what the welfare state is for.

When copyright on a text lasts for many decades after an author's death, though, it often ends up generating royalties for people with a very tenuous connection to the author

What it does is produce bludgers and incentivises others to be the same. It pushes the idea that you can have a high income from not working.

10:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

4:55 pm  
Anonymous Poison said...

Do you have the right of copyright.if the idea is not original and plagiarized ?

4:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heard someone saying on Radio NZ that the terms of the TPPA re copyright are not retrospective--that anything that is in the public domain now will stay there!
Get that Orwell book out there before anyone tells you different!

3:06 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Rewi Kemp, at Mrs Fowler's memorial, gave me a passionate dressing down about the TPPA. But I asked what we (or anyone) could do. He asserted: "Don't sign it!"

These kind of draconic, nay, Orwellian, things are typical of the United States which, being perhaps the main fascist country in the world (they should go to the United Nations and ask to be investigated as war criminals, they might have to execute say 60 million (for starters) to get some justice, as long as they started with a list of presidents)...

It is typical though, they are obsessed with rules and laws and right and wrong. Even in literature: they get into a panic if you mispell words such as color as 'colour' and they are hypnotised by the m-dash...I think that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement had a lot of good points about the almost dictatorial nature of author-centred novels, or Eurocentric, and ideas of patriarchy etc etc

For a long time the Frost estate has disallowed people printing his poems, and there are others.

I don't think there is anything wrong with copyright extending for a long time as it is natural that descendants receive these inheritances. But the blanket laws are stupid, and typical of the general stupidity of the United States which is a pretty fucked up fascist bloody place.

Orwell's satire was initially aimed at the Soviet Union when he broke with the other communists (later he dobbed in a lot of his mates to the British Secret Service so he was no saint - I think that the TB he had affected his mind): but 1984 is a great book for sure. Another one, that influenced him, was Zamyatin's 'We' which is worth a read. Everyone has numbers! There are no names...

I think Rewi, one of the prime movers in the PYM, would be interested in this post and I suppose Chris Trotter's comments. It is a pity, that if there are no instructions of time, that copyright is not automatically renewed. The corporates of course are just wanting to impose restrictions on people for profit reasons, and it is kind of terrorism.

The US has wars on terror, but the United States is the biggest and most dangerous terrorist nation on God's fucked up earth.

12:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

It is true, also, of course, that Orwell could see a kind of 'creeping mindlessness' (my phrase, don't use it or I'll sue everyone) throughout the world...the US has one good thing, The Simpsons, which satirises a lot of these things.

Key, who, with his mates, signed that restrictive agreement (which doesn't help our own farmers or other exporters) is one of the biggest wankers God every shoved guts up inside of.

12:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip Farrell!

7:58 pm  
Blogger Ali Raza said...

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9:55 am  

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