During this time, you can’t even quote significant portions of your own writing without permission from the publisher, and you could find yourself paying the publisher for the rights. You can’t read your own book aloud and sell the results. You certainly can’t give a journal a chapter.
You could try to be sneaky and change the text a bit, right? Wrong. They’ve thought of that. You will own and control new matter but the old matter is still the private possession of The Man.
What if the publisher isn’t marketing your book? You can yell and scream but they don’t have to answer. In fact, most publishers have a system for dealings with authors. It’s called voice mail. Emails go unanswered.
Yes, it is done by contract — contract backed by the power of the state. So why do authors put up with it? Mostly because it is a convention, and they haven’t known about alternatives. Also, they are bribed by the ego-exploiting promise of royalties that never arrive.
The practical effects can be devastating. There is, for example, a book on Austrian business cycles that was published some years ago, and it is in print from an academic house, but in print only in the most technical sense. It is essentially unaffordable for anyone but a state-funded library with an inelastic demand curve.
The Mises Institute wants to bring it back in paperback and make it affordable. Nope, can’t happen. The publisher says that it will do it for us, at a very high price with virtually no discount. They are in their legal rights to do this.
Of course it makes the whole project completely unviable. No deal. The authors are cornered. There is nothing they can do. There is nothing we can do. A great Austrian book, written over the course of ten years, is consigned to the dusty shelves of a handful of libraries, for at least another 70 years.
This is only one case of a hundred that I’ve seen. It is even worse when the author is dead. The publisher may or may not have handed back the rights to the manuscript. Those rights may or may not have been transferred. They may or may not have been handed on in the will or perhaps they are part of probate.
Yes, a potential new publisher can hunt this down to find out who among 6 billion potential owners actually controls rights to this manuscript. A lawyer is always glad to spend vast amounts of your money doing research. He may or may not come up with an answer you can trust. Meanwhile, you have spent the equivalent of a first print run.
Most potential publishers will say: to heck with it. Again, you have failed to be immortalized by your work. This goes for artists and musical compositions and even recordings of your band or voice. Thanks to federal law since the 1980s, all this material is bound up in a thicket of law, and this thicket will not evaporate for more than one hundred years.
So I say to all authors: please look at your contracts. Don’t sign your life away. Publish on the condition of Creative Commons. Claim your rights back as a creator and an author.
In other words, it makes your creation part of the free market. It can be posted, recorded, shown, photographed, celebrated by one and all forever. Isn’t this why you create in the first place? Isn’t this what drove you to write, paint, photograph, sing, or whatever? You want to make a difference. You want credit for your work. This permits it.