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Siva Vaidhyanathan <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 16 Oct 1998 21:16:48 -0500
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I wrongly implied that monopoly control equals monopoly pricing in the case
of the Mark Twain Papers and Project. The prices of volumes from the Mark
Twain Project reflect the substantial investment in them, not the fact that
in some cases, they represent the only such version on the market.

In fact, many of the works that the MTP sells are in the public domain, but
we and libraries still choose to purchase them because of their value and
quality. We all have the choice, for instance, to purchase editions of
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ for anywhere from $5.00 to $50. We get
what we pay for, but there is no monopoly limiting us to expensive volumes.

That's why letting a work enter the public domain is not the same as
thowing it out into the voids of space. Many people will want good books.
Others will want cheap books. Publishers still make money, but must compete
by either producing better or cheaper editions. The "problems" of monopoly
pricing really only apply to highly profitable cultural production such as
software and film. It was too strong a term for me to be throwing about in
a discussion of scholarly access.

So Bob Hirst is right to call me on that point. I am sorry I misrepresented
the economics of scholarly edition publication by conflating it with the
general principles of copyright. The MTP and other such endeavors are
special exceptions to the pecuniary effects of high copyright protection
because they choose to be, not because they have to be. Ask anyone who has
tried to do work on T.S. Eliot or Billie Holiday. We have it good.

Copyright can limit artists' and scholars' ability to quote from and
reprint protected material, often with severe consequences. As Bob pointed
out, this is not a problem for Twain scholars dealing with the MTP. But
that does not mean that it is not a big problem in other fields, such as
popular music history research, which is all but stifled by excessive
protection and zealous lawyers.

Copyright, properly designed and executed, creates just enough incentive to
produce new works. Improperly executed, as it is now, it overcompensates
previous creators at the expense of future creators and researchers. As it
was designed, copyright is a *deal* that publishers make with the American
people. We grant publishers monopoly control over a work for a limited
period of time, and they allow us access to that work. It's a pretty good
deal, if it works that way. That's why for almost 200 years, publishers had
to submit their works to the Library of Congress to get copyright

That principle of incentive and access has been abandoned, however.
Congress, judges, the WIPO and the president no longer care about the
public interest in copyright. Many electronic content providers put up
electronic gates that limit access to works and use, but still enjoy
copyright protection. Major content providers have been trying to squeeze
out fair use for decades.

But in the special case of the MTP, once again, the copyright system
achieves its ideal goals. As Bob wrote, "the 2002 deadline *created* a very
strong incentive to the copyright owner to publish everything in some
way---not necessarily in a very useful way, much less in a way that
everyone can afford to buy---before the end of 2002." The MTP will produce
edited collections and microfilms of previously unpublished works, and we
will get access to them through libraries. As Bob pointed out, raw
microfilm is not the best way to digest the material, and some of it will
be simply unreadable. But hopefully we will still get new edited and
annotated yellow volumes of letters for years to come, in addition to the
microfilm. I doubt -- perhaps I'm wrong -- that microfilm publication will
obviate scholarly editions. More is better. Demand for scholarly editions
might increase as interest rises and people get frustrated trying to figure
out Twain's handwriting. And, of course, Twain scholars, unlike country
music scholars or Eliot biographers, will likely continue to receive
permission to quote from the material controlled by the MTP (Jim Zwick's
potential frustrations remain).

Something to ponder: Would letting the unpublished MT material slip into
the public domain be so bad? Wouldn't we still need the services of the
MTP? Still need the scholarly editions of letters and notebooks? We
publicly subsidize scholarly projects because they cannot compete under the
brutal principles of a free market. Wouldn't that need continue? The Ben
Franklin project and the Jonathan Edwards project continue, even though
their material has been in the public domain for centuries. Certainly, the
MTP has a broader mission and different financial considerations, but a
comparison is worth making.

Although my tone was harsh and my statements unsubtle to the point of
violence, I agree with most of what Bob wrote. However, there is one point
on which we differ (I differ with Twain himself over this as well): When a
work enters the public domain does not suddenly "belong to no one." It
belongs to everyone.

Because the MTP understands its mission and its responsibility to its
patrons and readers, we have never had a problem with access to and use of
the material (or price of the editions, for that matter). The new copyright
changes were instigated to help Mickey Mouse, not Mark Twain. The problem
is not in Twain's house. Just don't mess with the Mouse.

Siva Vaidhyanathan
History Department
Wesleyan University
Middletown, CT 06459
(860) 685-2996