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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007 10:46 am
Do we love him now?
Posted by: Keir Graff

After careful consideration of copyright issues, Jonathan Lethem puts his money — er, make that “intellectual property” — where his mouth is. Says he:

On May 15th I’ll give away a free option on the film rights to my novel You Don’t Love Me Yet to a selected filmmaker.

I don’t have any snarky remarks about this. It’s insanely difficult for writers to make a living doing what they do, and when success comes to the select few, it’s hard to blame them for trying to cash in or at least protect their revenue streams (not so fast, James Patterson, I do blame you). But to see an artistically and financially successful writer experiment this way is refreshing. Not that he’s changing his whole business model, and not that he doesn’t still stand to make some cash, but still.

Here’s his answer to “Why?”:

Lately I’ve become fitful about some of the typical ways art is commodified. Despite making my living (mostly) by licensing my own copyrights, I found myself questioning some of the particular ways such rights are transacted, and even some of the premises underlying what’s called intellectual property. I read a lot of Lawrence Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan, who convinced me that technological progress – and globalization – made this a particularly contemporary issue. I also read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which persuaded me, paradoxically, that these issues are eternal ones, deeply embedded in the impulse to make any kind of art in the first place. I came away with the sense that artists ought to engage these questions directly, rather than leaving it entirely for corporations (on one side) and public advocates (on the other) to hash out. I also realized that sometimes giving things away – things that are usually seen to have an important and intrinsic ‘value’, like a film option – already felt like a meaningful part of what I do. I wanted to do more of it.

It’s a stand that not everyone can take and have it mean something, either. If I give away a film option to my Podiobook, it’s a very nice gesture that’s likely to go unnoticed.


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