Creative Copyrighting

Doug Diesenhaus
From the May/June 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Best-selling novelist Jonathan Lethem has stepped into the copyright spotlight with an unusual proposal that he hopes will make the industry think differently about copyright protection and how it's used. In his offer, made public on his Web site on March 13—the same day his most recent novel, You Don't Love Me Yet (Doubleday), was published—Lethem promises to give away the book's exclusive film adaptation rights to the person who writes him the best letter describing the movie to be made. Lethem says he's looking for a person who is actually excited about the book itself. The winner will be announced on May 15.

While the option is available for free, Lethem's agreement stipulates that he be paid 2 percent of the film's budget when and if it finds distribution. That stipulation is standard; usually authors receive 2 to 4 percent of the budget on the first day of shooting.

What's not standard is the requirement that the filmmaker Lethem selects must also agree to give up the ancillary rights—those that define how the plot situations and characters can be used in another adaptation, such as a sequel, television series, or comic book—to the public domain after five years. (Typically, filmmakers retain ancillary rights for the length of their copyright: their lifetime, plus seventy years.) Once the ancillary rights revert to the public domain, anyone could adapt the book without seeking permission of Lethem or the filmmaker, and without paying fees of any sort. The stipulation that the rights revert to the public domain would be "anathema to traditional movie studios," says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. "Hollywood generally grabs as many rights as it can and holds on to them as long as possible."

That's exactly what Lethem's trying to prevent with his offer. In fact, he wants to choose a proposal that specifically "gives evidence of some interest and responsiveness to the release of the materials into the public domain." While he's excited about the possibilities of a film adaptation, he's not interested in collaboration. "What I'm inviting someone to do is take a weird lover's leap with me—a kind of a partnership in giving something away—but I'm hoping they will have their own strong creative ideas, and I'll just be giving them my blessing."

With such a low barrier to entry, it's possible that an emerging filmmaker could win the opportunity to create a film she might otherwise not be able to make. "It's a good way to democratize the process and have someone who has a great idea have a go at it," says agent Peter Steinberg of Regal Literary, Inc., who frequently handles the sale of movie rights, including those for Alicia Erian's novel, Towelhead (Simon & Schuster, 2005), to American Beauty writer and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball.

Lethem's arrangement is the latest evidence of the author's interest in the creative potential of freeing up copyright. In his recent article, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," published in the February 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine, he describes copyright protection as "an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation." The article, composed primarily of fragments from other people's works—which he reveals at the end through rigorous sourcing—calls for a reconsideration of the current restrictions imposed by copyright law. "My little actions, together with the rhetoric in my essay, form a kind of provocation, perhaps," says Lethem. Some are doubtful the experiment will catch on. "I don't know if this portends a trend in the industry," says Aiken. "Most authors try to hold on to their rights and maximize their revenue."

Lethem says his thinking on the matter was greatly influenced by Lewis Hyde's book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Random House, 1983) and the work of New York University professor of culture and communication Siva Vaidhyanathan and Stanford law professor and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig, one of the founders of a movement to make copyright more flexible. "What our culture needs is more invitations for people legally to be able to build upon other people's creative work and extend it," says Lessig. "What's really valuable here is that you've got an extremely important creator asking the question, ‘How can we free up more culture?'"

Lethem's latest offer follows another he posted on his Web site about four months ago, in which he grants filmmakers, playwrights, and musicians the nonexclusive right to adapt his stories and remix his song lyrics for the cost of one dollar. Seventeen stories, including "Sleepy People," from the collection The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye (Harcourt Brace, 1996), and "The Glasses" and "The Spray" from his most recent collection, Men and Cartoons (Doubleday, 2004), and the lyrics to eight songs as well as three song fragments are available. Lethem currently has made agreements with four artists who are developing films or stage adaptations and with twelve musicians or musical groups, many of whose songs can be heard on an embedded audio player on Lethem's Web site (

While it might be too early to see how the experiment turns out, Lethem fans could soon get a chance to see some big Hollywood adaptations of his novels. Actor Edward Norton is developing Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday, 1999), and DreamWorks holds an option for As She Climbed Across the Table (Doubleday, 1997). Joshua Marston, writer and director of the independent film Maria Full of Grace, also is working on an adaptation, of Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday, 2003). With so many projects in the works, Lethem is likely to receive more readers for books. "I have no complaints about easily obtained, free publicity," he says. But he's also enjoying relinquishing a right that other authors usually retain. "It actually is quite a lot of fun," Lethem says. "There's something innately joyous about giving stuff away."

Doug Diesenhaus is the editorial assistant of Poets & Writers Magazine.