What If Shakespeare Wasn’t Public Domain?

A few years back, i had a coworker that ran a Hemingway site. He was, other than the difference in authors, a lot like many of us. He had no special academic background in the subject, he was just a rabid fan. Read what he could. Collected books. New opportunities to discuss new ideas? Jumped all over them. Hosted a forum where he posted his ideas to get discussion going, answered questions when he knew the answers, and so on.

Big, big difference? Hemingway is not public domain. Imagine all the things about Shakespeare that we take for granted – how often we freely cut and paste as many pieces of text, as long as we want, whenever we need to make a point. Need video? There’s almost always a YouTube clip of somebody reciting the sonnet or performing the scene that you need. He had none of that. He dreamed of the sort of concordances and textual analyses that we take for granted with Shakespeare. How many different words did Hemingway use? How did his vocabulary change during his career? Can’t do it.

So I wonder … how would your life be different if Shakespeare were not public domain? Let’s say that, like Winnie the Pooh, somebody along the line *had* the rights to Shakespeare’s works, and sold them. And that the entity who now owns them has aggressively marketed them, and rigorously defended their copyright. How would your life be different?

I’m pretty sure this blog wouldn’t exist. I can go out and buy a book on Shakespeare like anybody else, but what I really needed was the forum where we could talk about it. I’m not a theatre person or an academic, so I am not normally surrounded with Shakespearean resources (be they scripts or people). So if you suddenly took away my ability to make my point in text by preventing me from cutting and pasting a portion of a scene from a play? Or, worse, hung the spectre of the takedown notice over my head so that whenever I did cite text I could potentially receive such a scary lawyer letter? I can’t see how it would ever get off the ground.

UPDATED: If you’re coming in from Twitter, don’t be shy!  How do you think the world would be different if Shakespeare were not public domain?

A professor on Twitter wanted to make sure that everybody knew that not every *edition* of Shakespeare is public domain, and that her notes and emendations were copyrighted!  I pointed out that, if Shakespeare were not public domain to begin with, she wouldn’t have had anything to write notes on 🙂  No response.

The Shakespeare Tavern said that their budget would go up, which is certainly true since now they’d have to pay for rights to produce the plays :).  But, I wonder, if Shakespeare wasn’t so universal, would there even be a market anymore for full-time Shakespeare houses?

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9 thoughts on “What If Shakespeare Wasn’t Public Domain?

  1. Equally importantly, it would be a near death sentence for amateur productions of Shakespeare. Any show with a shoestring budget wouldn't be able to afford the rights to "Hamlet" or "Romeo and Juliet" if those were controlled by a corporation. Maybe they'd give discounts on minor plays like "King John" and "Two Noble Kinsmen."

  2. Run with that for a second, Alexi. What would that do to school productions? Would we still teach Romeo and Juliet as the "go to" play for high school students, if they couldn't also perform it? I realize that not everybody that reads Shakespeare in school is part of a Shakespeare performance, but you know, in general. Plenty of school plays out there come from Shakespeare's more well-known works.

  3. Something that always boggles my mind is when a kid who needs help on their homework with post a question like "Can somebody please help me figure out what happens in pages 110-130 of Hamlet?" Ummmmm…what edition?!

    Ed, as a software guy I've often wondered whether your system could be packaged into a sort of "roll your own text" for Shakespeare. If a system existed where you could pick and choose not just from the play, but from supplmemental content submitted by experts, is that something you think there'd be a market for? Some sort of content management system that allows you to build up a text like a jigsaw puzzle – I'll take these footnotes, that glossary, this source material….those questions at the end, etc etc…. and then generates a nice PDF formatted ebook ready for printing (or Kindling?)

  4. Duane: Set it up with an acting script format option (double-spaced for notes, line headings centered and all-caps) and you'd be golden. Actually, give them to option to cut the script themselves (via strikethroughs) before it's converted to PDFs, and there'd be loads of directors willing to pay for that to avoid the hassle of manually reformatting an entire script (as I did for Macbeth).

  5. I save money on texts by creating my own "textbooks" for my students, printing out the plays double-sided so that they can keep them in three-ring binders.

    They can write all their notes right in the text, which they couldn't do in school copies, and the school's only cost is paper and copying.

    This frees me from the additional problems of having enough copies of a particular title, the cost of replacing worn-out copies, and the ability to teach any play, no matter how "obscure." You can't buy three class sets of a title that's not in the book closet just because it's being done locally, but I can run them off.

    This year, for instance, it was Antony and Cleopatra, Henry IV
    (1 and 2), and Cymbeline; next year it'll be Troilus, Merchant, and Merry Wives.

    Can't tell you how well this works out. And naturally, the 9th and 10th grade teachers, who teach Romeo and Macbeth, respectively, are are following suit, right?

    Wrong. They continue to use, abuse, and bitch about the condition of the texts we have.

    You can't think outside the box when you are the box.

  6. One more point. Even Hamlet (with very few cuts)and Othello are only about 40 pages double-sided and at a reasonable point-size (Arial 11, usually)

  7. Hey Alexi, have you got a sample of a Shakespearean script in that format that you could email me? What you suggest is probably not out of reach and I'm curious to give it a shot.

  8. Good and fair questions, Ed. Yes, I'd have to say that any such service would at least need to attempt to make a profit, or at least support its costs. So it would cost more than paper, yes. But, hopefully, it would lower the barrier to entry that prevents all the other teachers from doing it!

    The materials could be collected and made public domain (or perhaps "creative commons") by the authors. This wouldn't be the only "build your own open source text book" project on the internet, there are precedents for this sort of thing. Lots of content producers out there willing to license their work in a sort of "Give credit and don't try to resell it as your own" model.

  9. Duane, I think that idea has merit. I have done just that with public domain illustrations, articles, etc.

    However, the true beauty of my system is that I have the "original" as a Word file on my computer. My only real cost to the school system is paper. In return, my students can write in their texts, I can replace them easily, and I can update and/or modify them quickly according to any of a number of variables.

    I don't know if the program you're talking about (and I apologize if I'm using the wrong lingo)would provide all that at a cost that would be affordable for me. And wouldn't any notes and supplemental material have had to come from somewhere, and therefore be subject to copyright laws? Would that add to the price and perhaps to the number of licenses per purchase? I may be wrong, but that defeats the purpose somewhat.

    I'm not trying to throw cold water on your idea, believe me, just thinking out loud.

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