Writing in the free world
Jonathan Lethem explains why copyright laws stifle creativity and why he's giving away the film option to
his new novel.
By Amy Benfer
Mar. 25, 2007 | Jonathan Lethem
's seventh novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet," is a parable of sorts about the ways
in which art is created and commodified by a process of borrowing, stealing and transformation. Set in Los
Angeles, the novel concerns four indie rock musicians closer to their 30th birthdays than they are to success. The
fetching bass player, Lucinda, strikes up a friendship with an anonymous caller to her day job, a complaint line
funded by an art gallery. The man, appropriately dubbed the Complainer, happens to have a genius for words.
Lucinda passes the Complainer's musings on to Bedwin, the band's lyricist, who transforms them into songs that
finally get the band some attention. Things get tricky when the Complainer demands a different sort of
compensation for his work: Rather than cash payment, he wants to join the band.
Last week, Lethem, author of the best-selling "Motherless Brooklyn"
and "The Fortress of Solitude,"
equally inventive, though much more generous, approach to releasing the film rights to his novel. On his Web site,
he offered an option on the film rights free to the filmmaker who presents him with the best proposal by May 15.
In return, the filmmaker will agree to pay Lethem 2 percent of the film's budget when the film receives a
distribution deal, and allow the rights to the novel to return to the public domain -- for the free use of anyone,
including other filmmakers -- within five years of the film's release.
Lethem also wrote an essay for the February issue of Harper's called "The Ecstasy of Influence," in which he
argues for a new approach to copyright law, based on the recognition that "appropriation, mimicry, quotation,
allusion and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act." It's based on the
recognition that all works of art are, in a sense, a collaboration between artists and the culture at large. I spoke to
Lethem about the copyright
theme in his new novel and essay at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"You Don't Love Me Yet" is about low-rent indie musicians with day jobs. Musicians like that often have
little or no label support behind them and find themselves on a perpetual tour wagon, earning most of their
cash through selling T-shirts -- that is, selling the byproducts of their lovely songs. When I jump on my pro-
copyright horse, I have to say these musicians may be wrecking their personal relationships by touring all
the time, and then when they enter their elderly years, which for an indie band may be their 30s.
Yes, yes, they have no intellectual property to help them out in the old age home. The first thing I want to say is