Can respecting authors mean not reading their books?

Can respecting authors mean not reading their books?


That’s what is at the heart of copyright.

Countries that have copyright laws codify that they respect what an author has does.

Certainly, there are commercial aspects, but it’s important to note that authors have copyright in the USA whether or not they ever publish their works.

That’s why it dismaysΒ me a bit when I see people on the forums and elsewhere looking for some way to get around a book not being available.

I think it many (but not all) cases they realize that the book has not been made available by the author (or by the publisher to whom they have licensed the rights). They don’t seem to care about that…they just want the book.

They seem to be more insistent about it the more they like the book.

Sort of like saying, “You’re so beautiful, you have to kiss me.”

Just because you want it more, just because it’s an award-winning book, that doesn’t give you any more right to it than if it was a poorly written book that never sold.

People are shocked and offended when what they call a “classic” isn’t available. In many cases, these classics are not in the public domain…I’ve seen people use the term with books that aren’t even twenty years old.

If you like the book, it seems like you would want to respect the author…and not take the book without their permission.

If you only read e-books, yes, that may mean that to respect the author, you may have to not read one of their books…for now.

What do you think? Do authors owe their works to their readers? The readers effectively pay their salaries…does that give them the right to read a book in whatever format they want, especially if they’ve paid for it once before? Is there a societal obligation to make great books available in as many formats as possible? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in theΒ I Love My Kindle blog.


17 Responses to “Can respecting authors mean not reading their books?”

  1. Jj Hitt Says:

    I do believe that authors and artists should profit from their work.
    I believe that their estates should profit some as well.
    I’m not so sure that should be extended onto the fifth generation.

    Copyright was initially for 14 years from publication (Copyright Act of 1790).

    It’s now 100+ years after the death of the artist in some cases (Sonny Bono Act of 1998, which primarily addresses sound recordings, but serves well as an extreme example).

    If a work was been out of publication in all forms for media for a number of years, I don’t see what harm is done by illicit copying. There’s no revenue being lost.

    If you make it easy for people to be honest, they usually will be honest. But if you go to extremes about what they can not own, copy or share, do not be surprised if they ignore the rules.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jj!

      That initial copyright of fourteen years was renewable once…if the author was still alive. Given the life expectancy, and the likely age of someone when getting a copyright, that wasn’t always going to be the case.

      Over time, as you point out, the term has been lengthened in the USA. I think that’s in part because of the continued value of older works, which was fueled in part by television leading to the rediscovery of older movies (notably The Three Stooges and the Universal horror movies).

      When it’s easy to be honest, there is no value in it. πŸ™‚ Let’s say that a work was published fifty years ago (and properly copyrighted), and thirty years ago, the author decided to never have it published again, perhaps regretting the original publication. It would seem disrespectful to infringe on that author’s right to make that decision (granted by copyright), even if there was no revenue lost.

      Certainly, that’s not always the case. That’s why “orphan works” legislation has been under consideration, which would create a legal path for those works to become available.

      I’m not surprised when people ignore the rules…regardless of how easy or hard it is to follow them. It’s a decision that they make: their desires override the rights of others. They decide if the law is appropriate or not. I don’t think that someone who deliberately pirates is automatically more likely to commit other crimes…but I would suspect that people who deliberately commit other crimes are more likely to be fine with pirating.

      I think most people tend to be honest and respect the rights of others…I do think most people aren’t perfect at that, but believe in it as a principle.

      You may also find this post interesting:

      I think the basic question is: should I assume I have the right to “own, copy or share”, as you put it, or should I think of it as something that the person who owns it grants me permission to do? The USA has limitations on copyright, and an author agrees to those under the law. I’d say that going outside of that gets back to the question of respect.

      If someone makes a different decision on this than I do that doesn’t mean I’ll disregard their opinions on other things, by the way. πŸ™‚ I don’t expect other people to feel the way that I do about issues of morality.

      • Jj Hitt Says:

        Intellectual property rights are interesting in that they are not rights that grant what you can do; they allow you to prohibit what others can do.

        If an author never publishes their work they have total and complete over their work. Once they publish, they have something less than that total control. I would oppose permanent copyright; once something has been published it has made the first step to becoming public domain.

        Just as death awaits us all, all published works should eventually end up in the public domain.

        As to an author withdrawing a work. I’ll acknowledge that right exists, but I’m not at all sure how worthy of respect such a move is. I wish I could withdraw some things I’ve said and done, but life hasn’t worked out that way.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Jj!

        Your observation on the nature of intellectual property is an interesting one. No, it’s not about what you are allowed to do, as you correctly point out: copyright doesn’t say, “You can distribute your work to the public and charge people for it.” However, I think that’s pretty common in law. Laws against car theft don’t say that you are allowed to own a car…they say that someone can face legal consequences for taking your car without your permission.

        Similarly, copyright laws say that someone else can’t publish your books without your permission…which is what makes is possible for you to license the right to a publisher to sell your book (without widespread unauthorized competition).

        I think many laws are designed to prohibit activity, rather than enable it. A speeding law doesn’t say you are allowed to drive 65 mph…it says if you drive over 65, you can get a ticket.

        An unpublished work is still subject to a copyright term. You might find this Copyright Office statement (it’s brief) interesting:

        I’m not quite sure I see the analogy between death (which is an unavoidable natural process, although much research is being done to make it occur less often) πŸ™‚ and a work falling into the public domain due to statutory imposition (which can happen even while the work is vital and selling well). I suppose if we lived in the society of Logan’s Run… πŸ˜‰

        As to withdrawing what you’ve said: πŸ™‚ Good point. Of course, in the age of Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and YouTube, people are finding that love may not last, but faux pas are forever. πŸ™‚

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I guess I’ll have to disagree. To my mind intellectual property protections have nothing to do with “respect”. It is a purely commercial/legal mechanism to ensure that creators of intellectual property have the ability to derive compensation from their efforts.

    If we go back to first principles, copyright is a mechanism enabling authors to be compensated for their work. In a sense it enables them to earn a living from their labors(always assuming the market finds them of value).

    To my mind when the creator of a work (and their significant other) dies, that should be it — the author and spouse have derived whatever compensation they could while they were alive. Once they are no longer with us, the works should go into the public domain.

    I’m relatively unsympathetic to the notion that children should inherit income streams from these kinds of efforts (with some exceptions for hardship).

    In any event once an author has passed on, it is my understanding that much of the income streams from popular works today flow not to individuals, but to corporations.

    Admittedly my notion is not how it works now, but if we’re talking morality, income should flow to the creator primarily, and only secondarily (if at all) to others.

    I don’t have much to say about downstream/resale rights while an author is alive. Whatever the legality, current practice says that if you bought a print book, you own some tangible property which you can resell. If you buy an ebook, authors/publishers are asserting that what they are selling you is the “right to read” that electronic copy, and nothing more. Since this notion is at variance with accepted print book practice, it remains to be seen whether the authorial/publisher assertion will hold/be enforceable — no matter what the law/morality might say.

    As the music industry has shown: if the public has a different view, all the laws in the world won’t stop the behavior, and even with things like the somewhat draconian DMCA, enforcement is proving to be very difficult. Music sharing is still quite rampant, and attempts to shut sharing sites down often run afoul of legitimate cloud sharing needs. While justice may go after the Kim Dotcoms of the world, I doubt they’ll ever go after Dropbox, or Microsoft’s Skydrive, or Google+, etc, etc where far more illegal (from a publishers viewpoint) sharing goes on.

    In our culturally relativistic world, what’s moral appears to be what people want it to be — there are no absolutes anymore :grin.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      The argument against saying that it’s purely a commercial protection is that there is no obligation to publish.

      That would certainly be a model, similar to retaining your trademark (you have to use it)…but that’s not the way it works.

      For works written after 1977 in the USA, the creator automatically gets a copyright…even if it is never published or registered.

      That’s key to me in the “respect” argument.

      Even if there is no intent to commercially utilize your work, copyright still applies.

      Let’s say you write a diary. You have no intention for it to ever be read by the public (or maybe, like Mark Twain, not until 100 years after your death). If copyright “… is a purely commercial/legal mechanism to ensure that creators of intellectual property have the ability to derive compensation from their efforts.” it wouldn’t apply if someone published that journal without your permission (although it is possible other laws might apply).

      I always find the idea of a death tax interesting, since it doesn’t seem to apply to anything except creative works in the public mind. Build a building or start a business, and people don’t seem to think that the government should automatically own it when you die (or seventy-five years after you die). Write a book that would have commercial value centuries after you create it, and when your heart stops, so does individual/family ownership? Why the difference?

      While it is true that it may commonly be corporations that benefit from works after the death of the author, remember that the compensation that the author got while alive was based in part on that posthumous value.

      To make the argument simple, I’m dropping the 75 years and just postulating that the book goes instantly into the public domain on the death of the author. That (and this is an essential point in my mind) is inherently ageist. Stephen King writes Carrie while the author is about 25 years old. With a “public domain at death” policy, the book is worth quite a bit of money…it’s likely to have exclusive commercial value for decades. If Stephen King writes Carrie at age 75, the author would get a lot less money for it…because it will be a lot sooner when it falls into the public domain.

      I have no question that what might be legal and/or moral and what may happen in the real world are two different things. πŸ™‚ That’s why I used “respect”…my thought was about what people think they should do, not about what they will do.

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment again!

  3. Zebras Says:

    I do try to be more conscious of the legal thing to do, since the digital world makes it so easy to break all the rules.

    In reverse, I tend to boycott buying dead author’s books which are priced to gouge. For example, I read nearly all of Victoria Holt’s books via new paperbacks that I bought myself since I was a teenager, and for nostalgic reasons, would love to have them for re-read on the Kindle. The one or two I found that were actually available, were $9.99 at the time. She’s been dead 10 or 15 years, those books have paid their dues to the author, someone’s really getting a nice profit whenever a purchase is made.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      When I first noticed a relatively high price like that for an older book published as an e-book, it surprised me. However, I checked the new (not used) paperback price for the same title…and it was even more. The only paperback available new was a trade paperback.

      If the publisher still needs to pay a royalty, what significantly increases their profit with the book being older? The production, distribution, accounting, and customer service costs are probably roughly the same as a newer book. The marketing costs might be less.

      If you mean that the initial investment has already been paid off…well, it doesn’t really work that way in entertainment, in my opinion. You don’t pay more at the movie theatre for a movie with a $100 million budget than you do for a movie with a $10 million dollar budget (excluding 3D and Imax, when you are really paying more to the movie theatre for their display costs, I believe).

      We don’t say, “It took this author a year to write this book, during which they could have made $50,000 in another job. Therefore, once they make $50,000, the rest of it is profit.”

      There is somewhat of an exception to this with some non-fiction…I think if a book was particularly difficult to produce, people are willing to pay more for it partially to acknowledge that.

      It’s reasonable not to pay $9.99 for older books, just as it is reasonable to set a maximum price you’ll pay on any book (and we have so many free books available, paying for a book is always a choice). I’m not sure that there is a lot more profit for the publisher with a backlist title, though.

  4. karin Says:

    Interesting discussion, thanks.

  5. Man in the Middle Says:

    My understanding, back when I was writing books for publication, was that copyright does NOT prevent people from copying your work. It only protects your right to be paid when they do so.

    If true, that solves the problem, except for the detail of how MUCH an author or publisher deserves to be paid for each unauthorized copy.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      This is from the Copyright Office:

      “Section 106
      of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive
      right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
      β€’ reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords”

      I suppose an argument could be made that the remedy for the unauthorized copying may be a monetary one and therefore in that sense the rightsholder is “paid” for it.

      You can see the remedies here:

      The rightsholder can go for damages and profit, but if they don’t, the minimum is $200 for unintentional infringement, and $750 for intentional. Intentional infringement can go up to $150,000 for each count. It’s more complicated than that, but those are a few of the key amounts.

  6. Rajbir Bhattacharjee Says:

    I’ve seen out of copyright books (classics hundred years old) which I can download from gutenberg and transfer via a cable, but can’t purchase from the Kindle Store. Reason cited is that the edition is not available in my country.
    Again, its got to do with pure economics. If you don’t want your books to be pirated, you should make it available. That goes for any sort of media. Why do you think Game of Thrones was one of the most pirated television series?

    It is really sad that I can download a book legally from gutenberg, but can’t purchase it in the Kindle store if I am an Indian resident, but can purchase the same book from kindle store if I am a US resident.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rabir!

      Yes, I absolutely agree: the best way to combat piracy is to make the book legally available to the people who want it. In this earlier post

      I polled my readers about when piracy would be acceptable to them:

      Under what circumstances would you consider book piracy acceptable?

      Never 42.31%
      If the book was otherwise unavailable in e-book form 30.77%
      If the book had text-to-speech blocked 6.41%
      If the price was too high 16.67%
      Other: 3.85%

      If the book is hundreds of years old, it is going to be in the public domain in both the USA and India, generally, although India treats posthumous works from the date of publication, I believe (I’m in no way an expert on Indian copyright).

      If there is new material or a new translation, that can create a new copyright, and that might be a factor. For example, if there were new illustrations, that would do it. If a book was newly translated from Hindi to English, that would do it.

      A publisher can also choose where to release books, even if the book itself is in the public domain.

      As to it being legal to download a book from Project Gutenberg, you have to be a bit careful there. PG does not check your country of residence and method of payment…since there isn’t one of the latter. πŸ™‚ They leave it up to the downloader to determine the legality.

      For example, the George Orwell books are not in the public domain in the USA. Due to a difference in copyright laws, they are in Australia. A resident of the USA could easily technically download 1984 from Project Gutenberg of Australia. On that site it says:

      “Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file.”

      If an American does download that book, they put Project Gutenberg at risk. The rightsholder could go after the site if they aren’t doing due diligence to protect the rights.

      Do you have a specific title you could list for me? I’d be curious to investigate that a bit more…see if it has new material or is a new translation, for example.

  7. Zebras Says:


    I don’t necessarily agree, but don’t think I could mount a comprehensible argument against your logic. LOL

    Leftover from a previous discussion, I did end up purchasing Hunger Games in the instant video format despite my aversion to owning movies that way, since the night it was released, they were not yet offering the $3.99 rental, and I didn’t want to wait. I just have to watch it 3.5 times to make up for the $14 cost, which won’t be a problem. Trying to encourage my husband to look for rental options versus purchasing, because he tends to want to purchase things he really likes, but then watches it once. But he doesn’t really like watching full length stuff on the Kindle or computer.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!


      I think the odds might be good that there may be other people who want to see that movie through your account at some point. Even decades from now, I think there will be people wanting to see that movie (even though the technology used to make it may seem quaint by then). πŸ˜‰

      Have you considered a Roku?

      Roku HD Streaming Player

      That’s a great way to watch your Amazon Instant Video purchases on a TV…and it has a lot of other benefits, too.

      Edited to add: I did want to say, it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me. My favorite comments are ones that respectfully disagree…that certainly gives me a chance to learn something (yes, I do change my mind sometimes), and allows others to see more sides of the discussion.

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