Everyone knows, even if everyone will not admit, that the copyright system is broken. Just consider this: the most devoted of Sherlock Holmes aficionados is having to go to court to fight demands for payment on behalf of an author who died eighty-three years ago. It’s an extortion racket, pure and simple.
I am particularly frustrated by the way the system allows companies to hold copyright power over created works that they have done nothing with for decades and plan to do nothing with ever again. For instance, about sixty years ago someone at the venerable London publisher Faber & Faber, perhaps T. S. Eliot himself, had a wonderful idea: to create small pamphlets each of which contained a single poem with illustrations. These were called Ariel poems, and as I understand it you could subscribe to the series and have each poem mailed to you. Here is the envelope in which one of them arrived:
I’d love to be able to show you more, but copyright law forbids it. Perhaps I might risk a tiny glimpse, on the vital but frequently neglected principle of fair use:
If you look to the left of the text and the right of the illustration, you can see the thread used to sew this little pamphlet together. It’s beautifully done. There’s even a title page:
That’s only a chunk of it, but surely I’m teetering on the edge of illegality. If I wanted to show any more, I’d need to ask Faber for permission, but according to the webpage that outlines their policies, I would need to make a very detailed request to which they might reply in eight to ten weeks; and the very least that they would charge me is £75, or around $115.
And yet these pamphlets have not been reprinted in decades. Perhaps the text of Auden’s poem, which has been continually in print, deserves this level of protection. But wouldn’t it be nice if the world could see, in full, the lovely illustrations of Edward Bawden? Not that you can’t view much of his work online — just do a Google Image search of his name. And I’m sure all those images have been posted with the strictest adherence to copyright law….