Two Sinclair Lewis-Related Thoughts

by Will on October 5, 2010

Recently I was thinking about writing a song based on the novel Elmer Gantry. Then I wondered about the legality of that. Perhaps Elmer Gantry is under copyright. How do I even find out if it is? And if it is, how completely crazy is that? Sinclair Lewis is dead. He has been dead for a long time. He’s not ever going to be alive again. Why keep paying him for having written that book? Or rather, why keep paying someone who didn’t write that book, for Sinclair Lewis’s labors?

So I dislike copyrights and patents: especially their long duration. That was what the last paragraph was getting at. Let’s have some rage against these stupid things.

Second, to what extent is Sinclair Lewis reliable to the historian? In the novel Babbitt, there is a scene where Babbitt goes to buy a bottle of gin from a bootlegger. Babbitt is determined to pay no more than $10. The guy tells him that the gin will cost $15. Babbitt rapidly folds and I think they compromise on $20. Adjusted for inflation, that’s something like $150 for a bottle of gin. Was gin really that expensive during Prohibition? Were people willing to pay $150 for it? Or was Lewis making it up, for comic effect? I want to know! If Lewis was accurate, that illustrates well the madness of Prohibition.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

g October 5, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Elmer Gantry does not enter the public domain until 2022, which is seventy years (rounded up) after the death of Sinclair Lewis. Had the novel been published before 1923, it would already have entered the public domain. Alas, it was not published until 1927. You’d need permission from the Lewis estate, administered by McIntosh & Otis, Sorry, kiddo. I’m sure Disney is somehow to blame for this.


Brian October 9, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Write the song. When it makes tons of money, deal with the legal issues then. I want to hear the song.


Will October 9, 2010 at 7:38 pm

I actually decided it wasn’t a workable song idea: I’m not Ray Davies, I can’t just rehash stuff that blatantly. But I’m happy to report that I’ve written another song that violates an 80-year-old copyright.


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