A considerable number of today’s copyfight discussions revolve around the usage of DRM to prevent transformative uses of works, to prevent the sharing of works, and to generally limit how individuals engage with the cultural artefacts around them. This post takes a step back from that, thinking through the significance of transforming ‘classic’ works of the English literary canon instead of looking at how new technologies butt heads against free speech. Specifically, I want to argue that NewSouth, Inc.’s decision to publish Huckleberry Finn without the word “nigger” – replacing it with “slave” – demonstrates the importance of works entering the public domain. I restrain from providing a normative framework to evaluate NewSouth’s actual decision – whether changing the particular word is good – and instead use their decision to articulate the conditions constituting ‘bad’ transformations versus ‘good’ transformations of public domain works. I will argue that uniform, uncontested, and totalizing modifications of public domains works is ‘bad’, whereas localized, particular, and discrete transformations should be encouraged given their existence as free expressions capable of (re)generating discussions around topics of social import.
Copyright is intended to operate as an engine to generating expressive content. In theory, by providing a limited monopoly over expressions (not the ideas that are expressed) authors can receive some kind of restitution for the fixed costs that they invest in creating works. While true (especially in the digital era) that marginal costs trend towards zero, pricing based on marginal cost alone fails to adequately account for the sunk costs of actual writing. Admittedly, some do write for free (blogs and academic articles in journals might stand as examples) but many people still write with the hope earning their riches through publications. There isn’t anything wrong with profit motivating an author’s desire to create.