Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about copyright law, political scandals, and Gay Talese's sports writing
December 1, 2010

Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership | By Lewis Hyde | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 306 pages, $26

The U.S. Constitution includes a clause authorizing Congress to give to authors and scientists exclusive rights to the uses of their work—but for only a limited time. The original “limited time,” referring to copyrights, was fourteen years. In 1998, however, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the reach of such protections until the year 2130. (The legislation, which was named after the performer-congressman who died in a skiing accident, is also commonly referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, for the great and near-permanent blessings it bestowed upon the Disney enterprises.)

In Common As Air, Lewis Hyde insists that the Founders were right to restrict copyright terms and thus enhance what flowed into the public domain, or commons. In particular, he finds in Benjamin Franklin an advocate of the idea that authors and inventors inevitably benefit from the work of those who have gone before, and are thus obligated to pass on the fruits of their own work to those who succeed them. According to this argument, a copyright or patent is a temporary benefit designed to stimulate new work, not to enable a perpetual monopoly. Instead, Hyde points out, copyright has come to be considered as enduring as land ownership, and copyright violations, of which he cites a fistful, regarded as more criminal than trespass.

The author does find at least scraps of encouragement in such recent communal effort as the mapping of the human genome, and the sharing of scholarship by way of, for example, the Internet’s Creative Commons. Such a terse summary as this one, it should be said, scarcely does justice to the variety and elegance of Hyde’s book. Common As Air makes an eloquent case for the protection of the public domain, even (or especially) at the cost of private holdings.

The Inside Stories of Modern Political Scandals: How Investigative Reporters Have Changed the Course of American History | By Woody Klein, Forward by Jeff Greenfield | Praeger | 237 pages, $44.95

Woody Klein, who put in his time as an investigative reporter in a long and variegated career, here offers a recounting of major investigative coups of the past sixty years. The older ones, such as the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate stories, may be standard fare by now. But half a dozen are from the last decade, and it is a distinct service to have them described, often in the words of the reporters themselves, whom Klein interviewed at length.

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The reader hears from Bethany McLean of Fortune magazine, who put the kibosh on Enron; Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of The New York Times, who exposed the Bush administration’s vast program of domestic eavesdropping; and Dana Priest of The Washington Post, who uncovered the practice of shipping terror suspects abroad and exposing them to torture. There are also excellent chapters devoted to Anne Hull and Priest of the Post, who uncovered the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and Tom Lasseter of The Miami Herald, whose dogged pursuit of former Guantanamo prisoners exposed a rash of irregularities at the detainment camp. One is impressed in each case by the calm professionalism and reticence of this new generation of reporters, undeterred by difficulty or potential danger.

The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese | Edited by Michael Rosenwald | Walker & Company | 308 pages, $16 paper

Melancholy pervades this anthology, which is drawn from Gay Talese’s abundant sports reportage. Assembled by Michael Rosenwald of The Washington Post, the collection reaches back sixty years into nostalgia land to reprint Talese’s teenage stories on high-school sports for his hometown newspaper, the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. Later on, Talese wrote about traditional sports in increasingly untraditional ways. Often he focused on faded glory, notably that of the heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, knocked out twice by Sonny Liston: Patterson’s life after his defeats became the subject of a dispassionate but sensitive article in Esquire, bluntly titled “The Loser.”

The other Esquire articles reprinted here take a similar tack. We encounter Joe Louis running a public-relations business, and Muhammad Ali, weighed down with Parkinson’s, visiting Castro in Cuba. But the most famous example of this genre, and the one that gives this anthology its title, is a 1966 story about Joe DiMaggio, written not long after the death of his former wife Marilyn Monroe—an article widely celebrated for its candor and understated compassion. “And so,” wrote Talese, “the baseball hero must always act the part, must preserve the myth, and none does it better than DiMaggio….” Nor does anyone tell it better than Talese at the top of his game.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.