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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 82, Autumn 1999

Controlling the Lewis Legacy Original Article

by Mike Perry
In the US, copyright isn’t based on an extension of property ownership.
It’s based on a public interest in seeing that the creators of new works
are sufficiently rewarded to encourage them in their work. Seventy-five
years takes in virtually anyone’s adult life, and life + 50 years would
take in the life of the spouse even if the author died young. Beyond a
certain point, there’s less and less return to society in retaining
copyright privileges. We often end up with a few decadent descendants
living off grandfather’s talent and a much larger collection of books that
simply drop out of print because the demand for them simply isn’t great
enough to pay royalities and the high cost of keeping a book in (paper)
print. Electronic texts provide a way to keep an author’s work alive and
widely available without any of those difficulties. And if at some time in
the future interest in the author grows, a small publisher can quickly
bring out a print version based on the electronic text.

Douglas Gresham objected to my placing Spirits in Bondage on the Internet
where it would be available in countries where the copyright is still
valid. I strongly doubt there were any legal grounds for his complaint. EU
law simply doesn’t govern what people do in the U.S. Print books have
always moved quite freely across national borders in “defiance” of national
laws. A few years ago there was an embarassing book the British government
banned under their Official Secrets Act. Yet the U.S. publisher was
shipping copies by the caseload to government offices in Britain where
officials wanted to read the expos. The same is now true of electronic
books. It is becoming increasing difficult for national governments (or a
few TV networks or newspaper chains) to decide what people see and read.
That has both good and bad effects.

I’ve never been able to make much sense of Doug Gresham’s attitude. He
seems not only to think that everything Lewis wrote ought to be under the
control of Lewis Pte, but that God added an 11th commandment to that
effect. In his case, money doesn’t seem to be the prime motivation, Spirits
can’t be earning much in comparison to Mere Christianity or Narnia.
Preserving the text as written also does not seem to be the rationale. It
is Lewis Pte that has authorized the publication of poems that differ
substantially from the versions published during Lewis’ lifetime. Doug has
never suggested that my e-text was going to be inaccurate, simply that it
existed outside Lewis Pte’s control. Personally, I think Lewis Pte would
actually earn its investors more money if they were less obsessed with what
others are doing and more generous with Lewis fans.

At its core, there seems to be an obsession with control in which some
people almost seem to think that they have become Lewis. Researchers who
have wanted to study Lewis, have turned to other writers in despair after
discovering that permission to publish is far more restricted with respect
to Lewis than with almost any other author. Lewis is popular enough that
all his collected papers should have been placed on microfilm that would be
freely available to any library that wanted a copy. That hasn’t happened.
Permission to publish two excellent children’s books that add to the Narnia
tales has been refused. People who wanted to give a few other Lewis fans a
copy of a much cherished letter they received from Lewis have been
harassed. Control, control, control. Lewis himself was not one-millionth
that obsessed with controlling his literary legacy. In fact, he neglected
it terribly in his last will, devoting more attention to an old family
portrait.

Unless there are later books that fell into the public domain early and
weren’t restored to copyright by GATT, Spirits in Bondage will be the only
book by Lewis posted on Internet in the United States for quite some time
to come — unless Lewis Pte gives permission. (In 15 years, all of Lewis’
works published during his lifetime will enter the public domain in
“life+50” countries like Canada, but no more will have entered the public
domain in the U.S. by then, assuming current laws don’t change.)

AFTERWORD by Kathryn Lindskoog

Because of his enthusiasm about C. S. Lewis, Rodney Loewen invested about
six months in creating a free website at
http://www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/6710 called “Friends of Narnia.”
Then it occurred to him that he should ask permission, and he did. “The
Curtis Brown [literary agency] then replied to me denying me permission to
do so because they ‘…are currently discussing the possibility of setting
up a dedicated Narnia website in conjunction with Harper Collins.'” When
Loewen sadly announced on MERELEWIS that he would terminate the website in
a week, giving people one last chance to see it, he was promptly advised by
a couple of readers that no permission is needed for websites, books, or
articles about Lewis. As a result, his impressive “Friends of Narnia”.is
still flourishing and delighting people, unimpeded.

The experiences of Mike Perry and Rodney Loewen are not uusual. It is the
nature of many businesses and the people who work for them to try to
maximize their control over things, and they like the public to think the
law grants them more control than it really does.

In 1997 a British High Court judge ruled that a person’s name or alleged
signature is in the public domain and cannot be claimed as an exclusive
trademark. That is good news.