Copyrights Against Creativity

British Airways ambassador Helena Flynn holds British author William Boyd’s new James Bond novel Solo during a photo call.

Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Sarah Lyall on the many challenges facing William Boyd as he wrote a new James Bond book:

How to appease Bond zealots suspicious of anyone tampering with their beloved character. How to satisfy Fleming’s estate, which hired Mr. Boyd for the project. And how to remain true to his own standards while honoring the spirit of an author he never met and getting inside the head of an anachronistic character he did not create.

And of course it’s not just Bond. These days many popular characters or story franchises live on in sequels authorized by a dead writer’s estate. I was talking the other day about the terrible series of prequels to Dune that Kevin J. Anderson has written.

But it must be said, this is as much a public policy issue as a literary one. With an older set of beloved characters—everyone from Romeo and Juliet to Robin Hood to Sherlock Holmes—you get a very different dynamic. These characters don’t pass from the control of their creator on to their creator’s children and grandchildren. They pass into the public domain. There stories about them get told and retold with no need to create a coherent continuity. And since the cost of obtaining the rights to the characters is zero, you end up with a competitive marketplace for new takes on Sherlock Holmes. The ones that are good enter the bloodstream of the culture, and the ones that are forgettable are just forgotten.

More recent characters never enter the public domain because a handful of 1930s-vintage characters—Mickey Mouse, Batman—are owned by corporations that are still powerful today and have succeessfully lobbied congress to retroactively extend copyright terms. What we ought to do is go back to a sensible regime of finite copyright—perhaps the lifespan of the author or 50 years, whichever is longer—so that creators can still benefit from their works but that new generations of characters will enter the mythic realm of the public domain. Then there will be many new James Bond stories, but also a discrete canon of “real” James Bond stories written by Ian Fleming.