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Do you know how long the copyright term is now?
Is There a Doctor in the House?
For those just joining us, the short version: “Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the rights to the books, films, TV shows, stage productions, exhibitions, digital media, licensed merchandise, and other strategic partnerships, announced on March 2, 2021, that it will stop publishing and licensing six books. The publications include And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), McElligot’s Pool (1947), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953) and The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). According to the organization, the books ‘portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong’ and are no longer being published due to racist and insensitive imagery.” And now you’re caught up on what everyone’s talking about.
“I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant
With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant . . .” (If I Ran the Zoo, page 14).
No one, conservative or liberal, would write that in a children’s book today, and I think it’s understandable if the Seuss estate doesn’t want to keep printing it; the only wonder is that they held out as long as they did.
I do think it’s very interesting and relevant (and exonerating—or not, according to taste) that later in the same book, Seuss also has this caricature of a (very white) generic Russian:
He’s literally wearing ammo belts as sashes. The accompanying text says (I am not making this up):
“And, speaking of birds, there’s the Russian Palooski,
Whose headski is redski and belly is blueski.
I’ll get one of them for my Zooski McGrewski.”
It seems to me that what Dr. Suess had that we don’t is most accurately described not as “racism” or anything about “race”, but a different culture from a different time, with a freewheeling greater willingness to caricature and exaggerate (it is a children’s book, after all) and joke around about anything that comes to hand—or, if you prefer, a sense that all those foreigners (both white and those “of color” alike) are way over there, “the other”, if you will, but not necessarily in a malicious way: rather, a sense that they have funny strange ways, and that they’re not part of his audience or his community, with a corresponding lack of sensitivity about mocking or slighting them. In other words, even at worst, he doesn’t have a weird complex against black people, or any other skin color, or in favor of “whiteness”; the woketivists are adding that.
But reasonable minds can differ, there’s no reason you have to agree with me on all that—and that’s the point. In a big, diverse (and free) country, there’s no reason 300 million people should have to come to the same conclusion or have the same opinion about almost anything, much less every particular point of literary criticism.
Meanwhile, there’s so much actual bullying these days (forcing people out of their jobs, etc.) against actual currently living people for holding dissenting or “incorrect” views on various things, it’s understandable if some conservatives have a little bit of a feeling of “First they came for the children’s books with occasional ‘dated cultural references,’ and I did nothing…and then they came for me.”
The problem is that current copyright law puts this decision solely in the hands of the Seuss estate—if they won’t publish the books, no one can—and that’s not their fault. Sure, they could simply donate all of Dr. Seuss’s books into the public domain, but expecting them unilaterally to give up this ongoing source of what is now basically free money to them would be a little bit like expecting a conservative to give up government benefits he is legally entitled to: Some would argue that he has no moral standing to argue for repealing or reforming forced-redistribution programs (food stamps, say, or Medicare or Social Security) if in the meantime he receives benefits from them, but that’s an unreasonable standard. The taxes are non-optional; he’s going to be forced to pay for the programs regardless. Given that this is the system we’re all stuck in for now (thanks to voters other than him, most of whom are no longer even alive), it’s difficult to maintain that in the meantime he has an obligation to put himself at a disadvantage by unilaterally foregoing only the items on the positive side of the ledger.
But if it weren’t for this copyright, there’s no reason any number of independent presses couldn’t continue printing and selling millions of copies of these Dr. Seuss books, without any further involvement of the Seuss estate: as they already do with anything else in the public domain, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes. Those who want the books can have them, and those (like the Seuss estate) who want no part in it don’t have to participate; everybody wins. There’s a tendency these days to think that everything has to be a big national question—and, therefore, a national fight, and a national decision for everyone, one way or the other—but again, in a big, diverse, free country, we don’t all have to agree on everything; on the contrary, leaving each other free to do most things differently is the only way such a country can work.
Free Speech vs. Copyright
It’s worth reminding ourselves what the purpose of copyright law is in the first place. The First Amendment, a great advance for free societies, protects freedom of speech and expression in general. The Constitution also contains this very limited exception: “The Congress shall have Power . . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries . . . .” In other words, American copyright law gives authors a government-protected monopoly—for a limited time—on copying and selling their works: on the theory that if we don’t, we’ll get fewer authors producing fewer works. (This differs from the European rationale for copyright law, which tends more toward the moral or philosophical, a sense that it’s only right to let artists, etc. have control over their creations.)
How We Got Here
Unfortunately, Congress has repeatedly extended the length of the copyright term, until the current life + 70—meaning, the author writes a book, for example, then lives for however long he lives, then dies, and then the copyright monopoly on that book lasts for another 70 years after his death. Congress has done this partly to make American law more consistent with European law, and partly because every time Mickey Mouse comes close to aging out and entering the public domain, Disney lobbies Congress to extend the length of everyone’s copyright terms another couple of decades. But if the purpose of copyright law is to encourage the creation of such works in the first place (which is explicitly the purpose of American copyright law, written right in the text of the Constitution), it is difficult to imagine that the possibility of benefits which accrue several generations after the author’s death is a major incentive motivating, say, a Dr. Seuss to produce more children’s books than he otherwise would. (Because works are governed by the copyright law in effect at the time they were created and published, most of the six books in question are instead subject to a 95-year copyright term under a previous statute, and will expire and enter the public domain around the year 2050. It comes to the same thing: That’s about 60 years after Seuss’s death.) Meanwhile, even if we were to adopt a European theory that an artist has a moral right to some control over his own creations, presumably any such legal right should not outlast the author’s lifetime, after which he has no further power to make (or revoke) such decisions.
Congress should shorten the copyright term back to something reasonable, such as 30 years from the date of publication. The Seuss estate should feel free to stop selling books that they feel are insensitive (or that they’re afraid a woke mob, coming for them suddenly like a destroying fire, will feel are insensitive); meanwhile, parents who feel that it’s OK for their children to be exposed to occasional “dated cultural references” should feel free to keep buying the books—and printing and selling them. It is a free country, after all.
Culturally speaking, Dr. Seuss belongs to all of us. There’s no reason the law shouldn’t reflect that.Published in