Having recently written a post that attracted hundreds of comments (some still coming in, alas), most of which were not apposite the post itself, I have begun to wonder if Internet trolling could be characterized as having “a chilling effect” in that it discourages people to write online in the first place. What we have to accept, what I find hard to accept, is that much of online discourse is simply politics masquerading as substantive debate. Find a toehold and use it to make your point. If someone publishes a piece about cheese, don’t hesitate to make a comment about chocolate; and if you write about chocolate, don’t be surprised that someone will use your remarks as the occasion for a diatribe about oil rigs in the North Sea. Assert, assert, assert: push to get your point across. Meanwhile, the sheer amount of junk and nonsense chips away at any credibility that online discourse may still have. This is the rhetorical tragedy of the commons, where we lose our ability to have a discussion because of all the shibboleths waving in our faces.
An example of this recently appeared on the blog of ARL with the off-putting title “To Kill A Mass Market Paperback and Access to Knowledge.” The occasion of this post was the recent announcement that the mass-market edition of To Kill a Mockingbird was being taken out of print. Mass-market editions, sometimes called “drugstore paperbacks” and “airport paperbacks” because of their (increasingly rare) distribution in unconventional book outlets such as drugstores and candy stores, are small and relatively inexpensive due to the volume and technology of their printing. The mass-market edition of Mockingbird sold for $8.99 (that is, that was the cover price), but it presumably was to be replaced by a larger format trade paperback edition that would sell for perhaps $14.99. (Amazon sells a Kindle edition for $10.99.) ARL’s position is that the greed of Harper Lee’s estate was driving this decision (which may be true). But if we didn’t have these long copyright terms, Mockingbird would be in the public domain now and schoolchildren would still have “access to knowledge.” Putting aside the question whether the phrase “access to knowledge” seems a bit abstract and strong for a children’s book, the ARL piece is essentially about the term of copyright, not about the price of Mockingbird.
If it were about the price of Mockingbird, the information would become more complicated. The ARL piece appeared on March 21, but on March 16 the New York Times reported that the publisher (HarperCollins) would offer schools the trade paperback edition of Mockingbird for $8.99 — that is, the same price as the former mass-market edition. Now, that information is not as cut-and-dried as it may appear. We don’t know how much schools were actually paying for that mass-market edition (there may have been discounts), nor do we know how many copies of the now jettisoned edition were sold outside of schools, information that only the publisher would have. We also don’t know if a mass-market edition might reappear, published directly by HarperCollins instead of by its former licensee, Hachette, which would instantly double the estate’s royalties (publishers typically, but not always, split licensing income 50-50 with the author). Nor do we know if HarperCollins has long-range plans to enter the digital site-licensing business — for example, making its entire catalogue of children’s and young adult titles available in digital form through licenses marketed to school districts. The fact is that we just don’t know what is going to happen, though we should assume that the publisher will work to maximize its income. And so I ask myself: Are publishers that different from other people?
Lest I be accused of doing the very same thing that I am criticizing in the ARL post, my own view is that long copyright terms do not in themselves provide incentives for authors to create works and for publishers to invest in them. (My own policy preference would be to tax estates 100% for assets, oil rigs and all, in excess of $1 million, which would make the term of copyright irrelevant in many cases.) This, the lack of inherent incentives in long terms of copyright, I believe, is ARL’s position as well (or at least that of Krista Cox, who wrote the post). And so we have this odd situation where ARL has an ally in me, but has managed to get me to view them with suspicion because of their rhetorical strategy. Who is served by this? How does the politicization of everything make the world a better place?