Posted by George Meredith on  UTC 2018-05-11 09:03

Most countries tell us that we must wait at least seventy years after an artist's death before we are allowed to reproduce freely his or her works. Whereas normal mortals leave their descendants the cash or property accumulated during their lifetimes, artistic mortals can not only do this, but in addition leave their descendants a seventy-year cash machine.

If the artist hits the jackpot – Tolkien, Rowling etc. – the gold-ass munches its way happily around the lawn every day, so that all the relatives have to do every morning is to go out and shovel up the piles of gold ducats.

It is unclear what the grandchildren and great-grandchildren have contributed to a work that was possibly done before they were born by a man or women whom they may never even have known, but the cash machine will work for them as well.

Most artists don't hit the jackpot, leaving their descendents to make do with the odd meagre royalty cheque. Meagre as the cheque may be, the work in question disappears behind the ramparts of copyright protection just as the jackpot works do.

It is also clear that posthumous copyright protection is not just there for the benefit of descendants, it is also a way of preserving value for publishers and agents. No publisher would ever undertake an expensive scholarly edition that might be devalued on or shortly after an artist's death. If we want quality publishing, some form of long-term protection of assets is necessary.

But in the age of the internet the publishers and the grateful descendants of artists who are still sitting tight on their ancestor's work up to seventy years after his or her death are doing their artist ancestor no service at all.

The artistic lockdown: Ogden Nash

We are not quite at the stage yet where we can say that if an author is not well represented on the internet then that author barely exists in current cultural life, but we are getting there. Although a once famous artistic name doesn't disappear overnight and the book-buying public may still be loyal, every author can do with a little cyber-plugging in the internet age.

We already grumbled about the chilling effect this lockdown has on an artist's reputation in the specific case of the Swiss graphic artist Hans Erni. Relatives, museums and the publishers of expensive, coffee-table art books have too much invested in him to release his work to the great unwashed masses on the internet.

Today we are going to reconnoitre the ramparts thrown up around the work of the witty American writer Ogden Nash (1902-1971).

You may be one of the initiated who has one or more of his books or perhaps an anthology containing some of his work. You may even be one of those people who can ruin dinner parties with your dramatic rendition of 'Middle-aged life is merry and I love to lead it'. But most people may have only seen a few lines of his here and there, perhaps mangled on those horrible quotation sites.

We wanted to reproduce Nash's witty and well-structured poem 'A Drink With Something In It', which first appeared in print in the fifth book of Nash's work, The Primrose Path in 1935. It has been frequently anthologised on paper since then.

We didn't manage it.

If you have seen it on the internet, it was probably only the first stanza you encountered – in itself very amusing – but much more amusing when you have the other four, thus allowing the poem to develop its full potential, like a twist of lemon in a martini. The first stanza is just the beginning. (You see, it's true: you do get deep thoughts on Figures of Speech).

On the internet, clamped down by copyright restrictions, Nash's work is now a victim of partial, careless, pirate reproductions that are themselves copied from dubious sources. No artist wants this to happen to his or her work.

On this website we go to all reasonable lengths to source, cite and reproduce materials correctly and to avoid infringing copyright. Ogden Nash died in 1971, so his work will be in copyright until 2041. We contacted the literary agent handling the copyright with our usual plea of poverty: only one poem on a website with no income, no ads, not even a tip-jar – Buddy, can you spare a dime?

'No' was the prompt answer to the last question, from their charming, polite but ironclad representative. One hundred dollars. That's it then: no full version of 'A Drink With Something In It' for our readers.

Well, it is clear to everyone that 100 USD will barely cover the agency's costs for completing the paperwork; no one can call it extortionate. It is also clear to everyone that it is not the agency's fault that Figures of Speech is penniless, our business model based on Carl Spitzweg's 1837 painting The Poor Poet. Their role in monetising Nash's literary estate is a clear and honourable one. Long may they prosper.

We, too, have to dig our heels in on this point. If we rob the FoS coffee tin of 100 USD for this work, on the next occasion we will have no more arguments, because if for X, then why not for Y? But the most telling argument for us arises when we consider the many people in the past who have generously waived their fees – in which case paying others would be an insult to them.

The art of being reasonable

And yet… and yet… Where someone publishes an artist's work for financial gain a fee to the estate is not unreasonable – whether it should extend seventy years after death is a different argument. Nash's daughter is still alive, his granddaughter on the distaff side. They both stood to receive perhaps one dollar from the present transaction after all the form-filling and infrastructure costs have been paid.

This seventy year clampdown on an artist's work may throw off a little bit of cash for everyone involved but it is really not in the author's posthumous interest: fame and recognition, preferably in life, but posthumous will do at a push. What artist's shade could resist the recognition that publication on Figures of Speech would bring? Quite.

Leaving it to the rights-management specialists to squeeze the pips of that fame for seventy years or as long as there are pips to squeeze does the artist no service. The artist's works are taken out of the modern cultural strudel and only released long after all relevance has faded.

We would go further by arguing that making an artist's work available on free websites does not in the least reduce sales of the work – quite the contrary, in fact. Get the internet awash with his or her work and the books will fly off the shelves and the demand by anthologies will soar. We should be leveraging the internet to allow Ogden Nash's reputation, and the reputations of all those other artists currently holed up behind the copyright rampart, to flourish in the new age.

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