Janet Bufton: The real controversy of the Roald Dahl saga is our absurdly long copyright protections

Nothing new will enter the public domain in Canada until 2043
Books by Roald Dahl are displayed at the Barney's store on East 60th Street in New York on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.  Andrew Burton/AP Photo.

The decision by Penguin Random House to update the language in Roald Dahl’s books, and then to publish two different versions, provides an opportunity to examine how eagerness to jump into the culture war damages our ability to experiment and grapple with important questions. 

Whether the updated language in Dahl’s books was overactive progressive censorship or not should be settled by the decision to publish both versions. This was (and is!) a marketplace decision attempting to cater to the publisher’s customer base, not a flubbed attempt at shadowy social engineering. 

I won’t argue that some, or even most of the changes that will now be in the Puffin editions (over which such a kerfuffle erupted) are good—I haven’t gone through them one-by-one, or in context, and I won’t. But as I’ve started to read the classic editions with my daughter (aged three-and-a-half, for as long as she’ll sit for them), I admit I have squirmed a bit. I also squirm a bit at the idea of taking out the word “fat” (I’d rather teach it as a neutral description than a slur). There’s nothing wrong with being a cashier. But my discomfort doesn’t tell me anything more than that I don’t like what’s going on here. 

To say our disagreements are aesthetic and personal rather than rising to the level of censorship isn’t the same as saying they don’t or shouldn’t matter. They matter to us, obviously, or we wouldn’t squirm. But our differences shouldn’t automatically seem dangerous.

And it’s not as though we don’t broadly agree that there are limits to what we show to children. We’re only arguing about where those limits ought to sit. 

It is easy when you don’t have small kids to hold the belief (I did!) that we can just read original fairy tales, eschewing the “Disneyfied” versions that take out the harshest bits. But the fact that these are even considered stories for children is a result of changes to the original versions. No one will give me a hard time because I don’t want to sit down with a preschooler and read to her that the married king rapes Sleeping Beauty while she was in her poisoned sleep and that she wakes up when one of the twins she gives birth to suckles the poison from her fingertip. 

Dahl’s stories, on the other hand, are uncontroversially for children. But they are for children in the first place because some topics are off-limits. We’re just mucking about deciding where we lay those limits. 

Isn’t it the role of parents to have these conversations with their kids and to help them understand where books closer to the line? Sure, of course, it is. And buying the Puffin edition of Dahl’s books with updated language or sticking with the Penguin Random House editions will be part of how parents decide to teach their kids about this stuff.

The Penguin editions will be called the “classic” text, but this isn’t the first time Dahl’s stories have been updated. He was alive when earlier changes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory updated the oompa loompas from African pygmies to tiny white hippies. Presumably, since he was alive, he was not entirely opposed to the update (though he bristled at the attacks on his character—fair enough). So it’s not as though the original texts are sacrosanct and we should believe Dahl would never agree to changes. 

It’s normal to put something out into the world. It’s normal to argue about whether or not it’s appropriate. It’s normal to have opinions one way or the other! Cultural change in particular is messy and loud, and cultural compromise and consensus are unremarkable. We overshoot in both directions and fight about it before we settle on something that most people consider acceptable, or at least unremarkable. 

Really. This is all normal and fine—good, even. Artistic experimentation should make us think, make us talk, and help us understand our values. Especially when those values are important. And disagreements can be important without being existential. (They usually are!) 

So, by all means, argue about whether the changes went too far! But also take a moment to examine whether you lost sight over whether you lost perspective about what was going on.

There’s one real solution to the angst around the Dahl changes that was never on the table, but it’s worth thinking about how things would have gone if it had been: shortening absurdly long copyright terms. Dahl’s books will not enter the public domain until 70 years after his death, in 2060. Until then, only the copyright holder can decide which versions of the books will be published. 

Instead of shortening copyright terms, Canada recently extended copyright by 20 years in order to harmonize policy with the United States. Ordinarily, new material enters the public domain every year and Canadian creators are free to put their own spin on a work. But as of this year, nothing new will enter the public domain in Canada until 2043. 

What would the Dahl Wars of February 2023 have looked like if copyright terms in Canada were shortened by twenty years instead, putting Dahl’s work into the public domain in 2022? Penguin Random House could still have offered its new Puffin editions for young readers, taking a stab at offering parents navigating changing norms a new option. 

But at the same time, the out-of-copyright status of the original works would give anyone the ability to start printing the old editions and selling them if they bet (as Penguin Random House obviously has) that readers and parents grouchy with the new changes might be motivated to go out and buy the copy they grew up with—and, since anyone could print them, we’d expect versions of these books to be available at very low prices. 

With more ability to experiment, we’d likely see even more ways of telling these stories. When you think of Sleeping Beauty today, you only picture the Disney princess instead of a vaguely nightmarish story because it was out of copyright and Disney could do what they wanted with it. That the original isn’t frozen by copyright is also the reason you can pick up a re-telling like Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (and you should!), or any other version. A compelling story, out of copyright, is fertile ground for artistic creation. And artistic creation provides—or should—an outlet for peaceful cultural debate. 

Maybe Charlie could be the nickname of Charlotte, a girl whose story mirrors the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but offers other fun new twists to the story. Or maybe she would just be a girl, so more little girls could see themselves in a story they prefer to Matilda. I don’t know. But I know it will be a lot harder to test out these ideas and see who might like them (and who would need to let us know that they most definitely do not) for another 37 years. What interesting conversations we might have about them. What a shame we’ll have to wait another generation. 

The Dahl controversy demonstrated the challenges that our polarized politics pose to the cultural dialogue that’s part of living in a liberal society. There are lots of questions that are meaningful and important without being existential, and our back-and-forth on those questions helps improve our beliefs about them. We need to flex the social and intellectual muscles that allow us to engage in that dialogue. Penguin Random House gave us a chance to exercise those muscles. Our form wasn’t great. But maybe we can learn something for next time.

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