Meera Nair

V.S. Naipaul and copyright

In Posts on September 5, 2018 at 8:18 pm

Following V.S. Naipaul’s death (1932-2018), I picked up his books again. They had been within reach throughout my life, yet I had never been too eager to read them. Naipaul’s views about India had not sat well; a seeming hostility heightened by an adoration of Britain. That Imperial overlords had sent his grandfather from India, to serve as an indentured labourer for estate owners in the West Indies, made it even more baffling.

Whereas my maternal grandfather, in joint opposition to both his caste-conscious family and British divine right claimants, had performed his own version of Quit India by moving to casteless Burma (Myanmar). He maintained a lifelong, faithful adherence to the Gandhian vision of an independent, secular India, one that aspired to equality for all, regardless of caste or gender. From that familial background, Nobel Prize notwithstanding, the sharpness of Naipaul’s pen was too alien for my tastes.

But the man was dead now, reading a book seemed the least I could do. A House for Mr. Biswas beckoned, a 1961 paperback edition brought out by Penguin Books. I glanced at the front matter, searching for that preliminary content which might influence how a reader approaches an author’s work.

In the words of literary theorist Gérard Genette, this is the realm of the paratext; that “vestibule,” where, before stepping inside the text, a reader is presented with information that might secure “a better reception for the text.” A paratext might include a preface (those guiding words in a detached voice), or the not-so-subtle extolling of past success (the lavish praise received in the wake of an author’s earlier works).

And then there are paratexts that carry a hue of legality.

Accustomed as I am to seeing maximalist copyright paratexts—those strident notices that, in violation of copyright law, prohibit any and all copying—this paratext was different:

Copyright © V.S. Naipaul
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher (emphasis mine).

The reader was only urged to be aware that unauthorized books might be in circulation. Penguin Books likely hoped that readers would apply the market force necessary to keep rival publishers in line, but the reader is largely left alone.

Appealing to readers to maintain markets was not new, even in 1961.

Robert Spoo, an authority in both law and literature, has written extensively about courtesy paratexts, those notices used by nineteenth century American publishers to illustrate that their dealings with British books were with the consent of the British author. At that time, American copyright law did not extend to protecting foreign works; freely using British writing was a legitimate option, available to the entire American publishing industry. To manage the temptation of undercutting one another, to avoid a race-to-the-bottom in the pricing of reprints, larger American publishing houses agreed not to poach authors’ works, once a particular house had secured the author’s consent.

Consent was usually obtained with a courtesy payment from the American publisher to the British copyright-owner. While British authors and publishers fumed at their lack of control in this system, a Royal Commission on copyright carried out by the British Government (1876-1878) confirmed that many British authors and publishers profited handsomely through these arrangements (though at Canada’s expense, i.e., see here or here.)

However, these gentlemen’s agreements were not always respected, particularly when the writer was popular with American readers. A few words from the author could confer some respectability upon the publisher in the eyes of the market, and increase the likelihood of holding that market. Within Spoo’s work are examples, exhibiting a range of tone from the humble words of Robert Browning to the distinctly legal’esque language of Charles Dickens.

Returning to the Naipaul collection, a paperback copy of India, A Million Mutinies Now (a Minerva edition dating to 1990), reveals the same paratext as found in Mr. Biswas. However, a Viking Penguin hardcover offering of the same book, of the same year, extolls this:

Copyright © V.S. Naipaul, 1990
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

It is bizarre even to suggest that the lengthy prohibition of reproduction etc., could limit the rights under copyright—given that the notice exceeds what copyright provides under law.

But this nonsensical statement makes some sense if it is read, not as prohibition to readers, but as a warning to would-be pirate publishers. The notice tells prospective resellers that the road to Million Mutinies must go through not only Viking, but Naipaul as well. From that, a reader could assume that Naipaul did not hand over all the meaningful aspects of copyright (control over reproduction etc.) to Viking.

Continuing my Naipaulian-guided exploration of copyright-paratexts; a 2011 edition of A Way in the World  (issued by Picador), begins by scrupulously noting that the book was published in 1994 by William Heinemann, in 1995 by Minerva, and then in 2001 by Vintage (Random House). It ends with the prohibition on circulation in any other form of binding or cover.

In between, the author surfaces; Naipaul’s claim of copyright for the book in 1994, and in the preface in 2011, are explicit. Curiously though, while claiming copyright required no justification, claiming authorship did: “The right of V.S. Naipaul to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.”

The remainder of the copyright-paratext takes on a biblical tone of crime and punishment:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

The overreach on the scope of copyright is astounding. Limitations/exceptions to copyright are always an option. So said Canada’s former Chief Justice Beverley Mclachlin in 2004: “Fair dealing is always available.”

All copyright statutes of countries participating in international treaties, will have sanctioned some degree of unauthorized use of copyrighted work. The Marrakesh Treaty (created in 2013 to support perceptually disabled people) comes to mind, but even the Berne Convention (created in 1886 ostensibly to better support authors) does not omit unauthorized uses.

Even without international prodding, countries may amend their exceptions to ensure that a system purporting to support authors has the capacity to fulfill that expectation. Canada’s best adjustment may well be S29.21.

In terms of the criminality of unauthorized use, in Canada such remedies generally pertain to commercial malfeasance; i.e., sale of the work without consent. Arguably, this paratext speaks only in terms of “may be liable” but in the hypersensitive copyright-age we live in, such a notice is enough to scare off any teacher or student from exercising fair dealing. I wonder if authors are aware of the misrepresentation of the law that is presented in their names.

Furthermore, how often do authors retain their copyright? How often do they retain it in more than name only? Does having a copyright actually translate into royalties when books are sold? What happens when books fall out of print; do the rights revert to the author? Are authors (and their estates) aware of explicit statutory provisions for reversion of rights? (Rebecca Giblin’s work, particularly the Authors Interest Project, probes these questions.)

Naipaul seemed to be aware of the importance of copyright; from his earliest publications (by André Deutsch Limited) on, Naipaul consistently declared his copyright and renewed it as necessary. That command of copyright continued even where he was not the sole author. The copyright paratext in the published correspondence between Naipaul and his family, entitled Letters Between a Father and a Son (Little, Brown and Company, 1999), tells a story of its own:

Copyright © V. S. Naipaul 1999
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

The moral right of the author is startling to say the least. There are five authors in this collection: Naipaul, his sister Kamla, their father and mother–Seepersad Naipaul and Droapatie Capildeo–and Gillon Aitken (editor of the collection and author of the introduction). Granted, V.S. Naipaul’s letters form the majority of the book, and his parents were dead at the time of publication. However, all authors ought to have been entitled to recognition and reservation of rights with respect to their own original work.

Perhaps these matters were discussed, explained, and executed with consent from the living parties.

Back to Mr. Biswas.

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