copyright versus writers

“I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation.”

Simone de Beauvoir, 1982.

Another example of copyright being used by the copyright owner to control or restrict dissemination of a copyrighted work — regardless of the likely desires of the creator. Ampersand at Alas, a Blog writes about publisher Knopf’s control over Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, citing Sarah Glazer’s editorial, “Lost in Translation”, NYT Aug. 22, 2004. Apparently, Knopf refuses to allow a new French-to-English translation to fix the (apparently) glaring problems with the first translation. This editorial is over a year old, so I just checked amazon.com as a quick & dirty proxy for a Books in Print search. All the English versions I found still cite to the Knopf translation (copyright renewed in 1980).

Ann Bartow’s commentary on Sivacracy includes this very pointed observation:

Once again copyright law is preventing rather than incentivizing the creation and distribution of important ideas and expression.

When the government brings the force of law to bear to prevent a person from using particular words or images to communicate, and/or to prevent her from distributing or reading certain words, to some of us that seems a lot like censorship. Copyright laws are a restraint on speech, but one that is tolerated by the First Amendment because the copyright system is supposed to incentivize the creation and distribution of useful, creative works. That’s not what is happening here.

Like most authors, Simone de Beauvoir probably had to capitulate to every demand made by her publisher just to see her book in print. Copyright laws could be re-written to at least slightly improve the balance of power between authors and publishers, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

update 12/21: Alas, a Blog has heard a rumor that Knopf may have agreed to a new translation, and links to another article on the issue.