Monday, September 27, 2004

The Phantom Bullfight

Generally speaking, proponents of rigid copyright law argue that such laws are necessary to foster a climate where artistic production will thrive. Only with lengthy copyrights will artists have the incentive to create, it is contended. The tradeoff is that society then has the benefit of these projects. In the case of a recent Hemingway story, though, it seems copyright has shifted things in the opposite direction: away from public distribution.

This week a collector announced he would be selling the original manuscript of a 1924 parody Ernest Hemingway wrote about bullfighting. Even if the piece is not exactly A Farewell to Arms material, it is certainly interest to historians and Hemingway aficianados. But though the manuscript itself can be sold, the piece cannot be published–Hemingway's estate refuses to grant permission.

The Associated Press reports on the unpublished tale: "People who have seen the story say it's no masterpiece. But it could give important clues about Hemingway's first attempts at trying on different literary styles — especially because most of his early work disappeared when his suitcase was stolen in the early 1920s.

The short story also foreshadows Hemingway's fascination with blood, spectacle and bullfights. Two years later, he published the classic The Sun Also Rises, about aimless expatriates hanging out in Paris and the bull-running city of Pamplona."

Why should an estate retain control of a piece that is 80 years old? When copyright was first passed in the United States, it only lasted for 14 years. But with the 20th century and the advent of Mickey Mouse, copyright extensions grew longer and longer... they now reach as long as 95 years, far beyond the lifetime of the creator. This does not facilitate a benefit to anyone.

For more on the benefits of allowing old art to enter the public domain, go to a library and read the collected works of Lawrence Lessig.


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