Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the entity that owns the works of the late Dr. Seuss recently decided to pull 6 books from its publication. Most of these titles have been in publication for over 50 years. A large controversy has arisen from this with one side arguing that this is a prime example of “Cancel Culture” and the other side stating that it is a necessary step to eliminate racism in media. I think both are wrong. Originally I was calling this cancel culture, but in reality it is deeper than that. In this situation rather than societal pressure and outrage causing the cancellation by shouting out any merits of the work, the owner of the works decided on their own to remove the products. This is free markets right? Well not exactly. The ability for Dr. Seuss Enterprises to essentially bury these books is rooted in a long term Corporatist effort to rob the public of property. Dr. Seuss banned books create an excellent framework to evaluate our current copyright laws.
Dr. Seuss Banned Books: It’s Their Property They Can Do What They Want!
This is true, and I am a supporter of free market economics, however the United States copyright laws are not a reflection of free market economics, they are a result of gross government intervention, headed by large corporations to systematically steal cultural consciousness from the people. Copyright laws have increased greatly in relatively recent memory.
The (Abbreviated) History of U.S. Copyright Laws:
Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, of the United States Constitution grants Congress the enumerated 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.”
The original US copyright law protected creators by allowing creators to have the sole ability to profit from their work for 14 years, and it was renewable for a 2nd 14 year term. This copyright law essentially created a forced government monopoly for the creator in order to provide an incentive for people to create new intellectual property. The idea of copyright laws is the government intervention to free markets. Being able to be the only person to profit from something you write is a big motivator, and the original 28 year maximum certainly is a long time to receive exclusive royalties and motivate someone to make more works. Keep in mind at the end of the term the author can still profit from their works, however other people are no longer prevented from profiting, or sharing the authors works without profit, or building on what the original creator made. Others are allowed to use characters in other adventures. Think of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” as an example, which used several characters of expired copyrights including Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man to create a new story.
In 1831 the copyright law was extended from 14 years to 28 year, with a 14 year extension available.
In 1909 the copyright law was extended to 28 years with a 28 year extension available.
In 1976 the copyright law was expanded in order to align with international laws. Copyrights for existing works were given an extension to allow for 75 years of protection and new works were given protection of the life of the author, PLUS 50 years.
In 1998 the copyright laws were extended once more, with massive lobbying by Disney to protect Mickey Mouse. Copyrights for new works were extended to the life of the author PLUS 70 years. It also gave works of corporate authorship protection for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first. All works published before 1978 were given a 20 year extension to 95 years total.
Our government went from granting a monopoly of 28 years to 42 years to 56 years. Then the same works were extended to 75 years, then to 95 years. Assuming a lifetime of 90 years and a publication at age 30, they jumped newly created works from 56 years of protection to 110 years, then to 130 years! Because the 1976 law expanded copyrights to such a massive degree and was followed by the 1998 law which extended everything by 20 years, we went through an extremely long history of nothing entering the public domain. Because of this we as a society are now used to works being essentially held forever.
When Dr. Seuss Banned Books Copyrights Expire:
Now, to get back to Dr. Seuss. The majority of his works were published between 1937 and 1976. These books were published at a time when the copyright laws would have expired 56 years after initial publication, meaning any published prior to 1965 would be in the public domain today, including 5 of the 6 now discontinued books. Because of the various extensions discussed above these Dr. Seuss banned books won’t enter the public domain for decades. Rather than expiring at 56 years, these copyrights will not expire until 95 years after publication.
Copyright expiration of Dr. Seuss Banned Books: (Amazon links below to buy them on Amazon!
- And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street 1937 – 2032
- McElligot’s Pool 1947 -2042
- If I Ran the Zoo 1950 – 2045
- Scrambled Eggs Super! 1953 – 2048
- On Beyond Zebra! 1955 – 2050
- The Cat’s Quizzer 1976 – 2071
Collection books have also been Cancelled, including:
- A Hatful of Seuss (Contains “If I Ran The Zoo”)
- Six by Seuss (Contains “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street”)
- Your Favorite Seuss (Contains And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, and If I Rant The Zoo)
So the question is, if the true goal is to encourage innovation, does a government forced monopoly of 130 years achieve this goal?
How I Feel Copyright Law Should Work:
For starters I think that copyrights are a good thing and people should be able to earn money off of their works. Where it gets hairy is to what extent do we prevent others from making money from their works? I think lifetime copyrights have their merits. Providing monopoly protection after the author has died makes no sense to foster innovation, much less 70 years after the author dies. Our constitution stated to by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right” Having a guaranteed lifetime copyright plus 70 years is not “limited times”. The intent was not to make copyrights an infinite protection. It was made to give them a period of time to have the exclusive rights, not their entire lives. The Supreme Court of the United States disagrees (Eldred Vs. Ashcroft) and held that not only can congress retroactively extend existing copyrights, but that ANY definition of time is limited. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling congress could pass a copyright law of “life plus 10,000 years” and it would be legal under the constitution.
Just because the Supreme Court says it is constitutional doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right, fair, or the best way to promote the progress of science and useful art. In order for people to build on the works of others, there needs to be some expiration of copyright. This now taking on average 130 years greatly slows down progress and creative works.
Realistically the original 28 years was an extremely generous government protection. A child who grew up reading a book by an author could take the characters on a new adventure in their lifetime. Under current laws, his great great grandchildren would be hard pressed to take those characters on an adventure. I strongly believe that the last 2 copyright extension acts should be repealed and copyright protection should revert to the maximum of 56 years as a first step. Ultimately it would be reduced further.
In the information age the original copyright protection of 28 years is an eternity. In our modern era where we can instantly reach billions of customers through ecommerce, instant digital deliveries, and super fast physical worldwide delivery we have copyright laws going the wrong way. While 28 years may have made sense in the 18th century, today there’s a valid argument for it to be less, not more. It took longer to publish and print a book. It took months to deliver products over seas. Getting distribution into retail locations was extraordinarily difficult and time consuming. Today you can self publish a book on Amazon and have over a billion customers find it and have it physically delivered within 2 days or downloaded instantaneously. Because of this, the argument should be for shorter copyrights, not longer copyrights. I think after reducing the current copyright laws from life plus 70 years to 56 years, we should then give a 10 year buffer and reduce it further to 28 years. 10 years after than reduce it to 14 years.
This would be retroactive for existing works, meaning we would have massive public domain days directly after the bill passes. All of the copyright extensions that were passed were retroactive for existing works, so a reduction should be as well. Anything created before 1965 would enter the public domain immediately, then every year for the next 10 years new items would enter the public domain. In 2031 all works published between 1975 and 2003 would enter the public domain. Each year between 2031 and 2041 new works would enter the public domain each year, and then in 2041 all works published between 2013 and 2027 would enter the public domain, at which point the law would be caught up and all new works would enter the public domain after 14 years.
Straight To The Public Domain For Unpublished Works:
This particular situation, where the author has been dead for 30 years and the current owners of the rights decide to stop publishing a work that people want to pay money for is a situation where we get the exact opposite effect of the original intent of the copyright laws. Copyright laws are to protect profits, not to destroy cultural consciousness. I think our copyrights should be adjusted so that if the owner does not wish to continue publishing a work they own the rights to, then it should automatically enter the public domain. This would allow others to republish the works to keep them available to the public, as well as allow others to take the characters on a new adventure. An author could pull the book from the public domain if its publication date was still covered by copyright law and they decided to republish.
This article proposes a method for this, advocating that if a copyright holder decides not to profit anymore they should transfer their copyrights to the public domain or make them available under the Creative Common’s’ copyright waiver. One option would be to add a sunset clause to the copyright laws that states if a work is out of print for a certain period of time, in his example, 7 years, then it automatically reverts into the public domain. I think this mechanism, with a faster sunset provision, like 3 years would be more appropriate.
Would Dr. Seuss Ban His Own Books?
If Dr. Seuss were alive today, he would be more motivated by profit than his heirs are. He would be more likely to amend offending content than to bury the books. To Dr. Seuss Enterprises these 6 books represent a very small fraction of total Dr. Seuss property sales, so to them, the decision not to publish removes a very small incremental amount of income. I’m also confident that they knew this would cause vast media attention and give a massive shot in the arm to their other books. As a creator myself, I know that the vast majority of creators want to see their work out there, even absent of profit. In addition to the profit motive they want people to see and enjoy the art that they strived to create. How do I know that Dr. Seuss would take this route and edit a book rather than trash it?
For starters, he has already done so. While Dr. Seuss was still alive he changed a line in “To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” from saying “A China Man” to “A Chinese Man” and edited the image to make it less of a stereotypical 1930s American interpretation of someone from China. He wasn’t against minor tweaks to keep his works in publication and enjoyed by the masses. I could change all of the offensive images and replace them with non offensive images in a matter of hours. Dr. Seuss would have wanted his works to continue to be published. I did this one in Microsoft Paint in 10 minutes as an example.
I would then change the wording in another passage from
“I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant
With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant”
“I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant
With helpers who work while they chant”
Editing Dr. Seuss books would be a much better option for society and for Dr. Seuss enterprises than to Ban Dr. Seuss books. If books and other published works continue to be removed by copyright holders and our laws don’t change to allow for a stronger public domain, I can see some creators taking steps to protect their works after they die. Some may release their works to the public domain upon their death, others may create legal structures to ensure that their books remain in print, whether providing IF/THEN statements putting them into the public domain if the rights holder refuses to publish, or ensuring that any minor tweaks to the work can be made to align with future social mores.
Is It Racist or Racially Insensitive?
Dr. Seuss wrote several books based on acceptance and inclusion. “What Was I Afraid of” and “The Sneetches” are 2 perfect examples. Dr. Seuss was not motivated by racial hate. He lived in a different time, and these sketches reflect that. Intent should matter. Often in these cases of racial insensitivity our society applies the blanket statement of “racist” to it, discarding the intent. I’ll be honest, when I read “If I Ran The Zoo” with my kids when they were little I had a cringe moment at a couple images. Modification should be seen as the best alternative to destruction. Because 1% of a book contains offensive content doesn’t mean that the book should be banned.
Reselling of Dr. Seuss Banned Books:
Let’s say you don’t agree with me and think that it is 100% ok for a copyright holder to have lifetime plus 70 year protection and the ability to vault the works to hide them from the public. Let’s look at some of the ancillary issues this has led to with the Dr. Seuss situation.
eBay declared that they will remove all listings for these Dr. Seuss banned books, including collections of Dr. Seuss books that include these works. eBay is a platform to sell new and used items. They don’t have a right to the items. Now in free markets its their platform and they can choose what they allow to be bought and sold on it right? eBay has a policy to not allow offensive material to be sold on its platform. For the past 20+ years of its existence these books were not deemed offensive. Now, because the owner of the rights decided to withdraw the works, eBay has decided to not allow anyone to sell on the second hand market. The inconsistency of this policy is also something that should be scrutinized. I can buy “Mein Kampf” on eBay. I can buy “Birthplace of a Nation” on eBay. I can buy a shirt that says “Fuck You” Those are not unlisted for being “offensive content”.
Thankfully eBay’s method of doing so is incompetent and their are several work arounds to list these books. Some people hint at the name of the book but don’t spell it out, others don’t take pictures of the books for sale, and some post buy it now auctions in hopes of a quick sale before the censors take them down. Thankfully other marketplaces like Amazon have not stooped to this level. When a company has a significant market share approaching a monopoly, deciding to ban things becomes an issue of censorship rather than an issue of a company exercising its rights. eBay controls the vast majority of worldwide second hand stores. If all first hand stores can’t sell a product and the largest 2nd hand store refuses to allow people to sell a product, we are effectively burning books.
As much as I hate to commend Disney, because of their instrumentation in getting the copyright laws extended, what they have done with content made decades ago that doesn’t line up with todays values, they continue to publish on Disney+, but only on adult accounts and with a disclaimer about the offensive content inside. This is the right way to do things.
Library Theft of Dr. Seuss Banned Books:
If people want to read these banned Dr. Seuss books they can just get them from the library, right? Well, Because these books will no longer be printed, and they are increasingly banned from the 2nd hand market, copies for sale have skyrocketed in price. You are hard pressed to find The Cat’s Quizzer for under $500. Typically library fines are capped at the price of the book. I strongly believe that with this economic incentive many libraries will find that their copies of these 6 books have disappeared. A set of all 6 routinely sells for around $1,500. I can see a $1,500 windfall being worth not returning to a library for many people, and that’s assuming they would check out the book and then sell it, vs. just walking out the door with them. I’m sure as I’m writing this there are people systematically hitting every library they can drive to and stealing these books.
Make no mistake, our infinite copyright laws mixed with our woke culture that assesses works based on todays society instead of the society when they were created and the bandwagon effect of every company deciding they don’t want to be associated with anything that is questioned, will lead to the largest destruction of knowledge and cultural consciousness since the burning of the Library of Alexandria. We can’t pretend that in the 1930s and 1950s American media didn’t contain offensive depictions of non white people. We can’t pretend that Jim Crow never happened. Dr. Seuss wrote the line about “wearing their eyes at a slant” just a couple years after the US Government imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese descent and stole all of their assets. A stereotypical characterization of people is a small reflection of what our country was doing and thinking in that time period.
We need to teach our children that these depictions are wrong. We need to teach them that history is not always pretty, in fact it rarely is. We also need to teach them that we need to learn from our past and not destroy it. Burning books is never the answer. We want to teach them that their imaginations are wonderful things, and I know when I was growing up Dr. Seuss books lit up my imagination.
What do you think of the Dr. Seuss Banned Books being put into the vault? How do you feel about our copyright laws? Currently the least expensive way to get a good chunk of these is to buy the collection Your Favorite Seuss Which is currently running at around $350. The 3 discontinued books in it combined sell for around $550, plus you get another 10 stories!