January 8, 2013
A bumper crop for public domain books in Japan this year; in the US, no crop at all
by Dustin Kurtz
Japanese copyright law stipulates fifty years after the death of an artist before their work becomes public domain. As a result, the work of Japanese authors who died in 1962 all went up for grabs this month, and as the Yomiuri Shimbun reports, it’s been an expansive and anticipated group.
From Eiji Yoshikawa, author of dramatic historical novels, to celebrated haiku-ist Dakatsu Iida, the work of a whole slew of greats has been opened up this year. Yomiuri quotes Michio Tomita of Aozora Bunko — a Japanese equivalent of the Gutenberg project — as saying this year’s selection of newly available works is unusually large.
Copyright reform advocates often point to what might have been made available in a given year had the law not been revised in the U.S., most significantly in 1978 after which the term of copyright was extended from 56 years to 70 years after death. If the US has the even shorter Japanese version of copyright, the works of William Faulker (whose estate is hilariously litigous), e.e. cummings, and even Eleanor Roosevelt would now be available for all to use and abuse. As the law stands in the now, only previously unpublished work by authors who died in 1942 will be entering the public domain in the US this year. For a thrilling look at what
Japan, along with Canada and New Zealand, is a potential party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement spearheaded by the States which would, among other things, include member nations extending their copyright period to seventy years to bring it more in line with the American model. The fight against such a switch is ongoing.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.