A television film crew is on its way to this island on the Kennebec River to tape an interview, and they have faxed ahead release forms setting out the conditions under which the interview will take place. The forms understandably give the production company the right to use any images of me or the location that the cameraman captures on videotape, and most of the legalese is familiar boilerplate. One phrase did, however, catch my eye. I am signing away all rights to whatever is captured on videotape "in perpetuity in any and all media throughout the universe."
Now I am quite comfortable with book contracts that delineate what rights the author is assigning to the publisher. There are the familiar clauses pertaining to paperback, book club, translation, foreign, movie and even electronic rights, and the assignment of the rights is usually limited to the world and to the term of the copyright, which extends for 75 years beyond the author's lifetime. Literary agents fight to keep selected subsidiary rights for themselves and the author, not uncommonly giving the original publisher the sole right only to produce and sell a hardback edition in North America alone.
Why should television, certainly an ephemeral medium compared with the book, expect so much more? Perhaps I should not sign the releases as presented. Perhaps I should allow the images of me and my cottage to be broadcast only on Earth, possibly with a pay-per-view feed to the moon. Perhaps I should negotiate rights to the solar system only after the question of who will control the satellite feed is resolved. Even then, I might want to break down the planetary rights so that the potentially more profitable Martian market could be controlled by my gogolgreat-grandchildren.
And what about planets not yet discovered? Since the language does not stipulate the known universe, does this mean the production company cannot use any images it captures here on an anti-world as yet unknown? I decided early on not to worry about whether it could broadcast the interview in the vicinity of black holes.
The "in perpetuity" language bothered me at first, but then I figured that no videotape player is likely to survive the Y10K panic that will threaten the universe eight millennia hence. We think now that we will have smooth sailing if today's computer programmers can just get all the dates converted to four-digit numbers before the end of '99, but everyone seems to have forgotten that we will soon require five-digit years to ensure a smooth transition from the year 9999 to 10000. I feel comfortable with the thought that any release I sign now is likely to be meaningless as of Jan. 1 of that year.
As for the "any and all media" wording, should I strike it out or put in "twenty-first century"? Who knows what media might exist thousands of years hence? Could anyone in ancient times have predicted that 2,000 years later we would have the media of color xerography and silly putty to produce, or at least to reproduce cartoons and comic strips? Given the decline in the quality of communications media since the era of the illuminated manuscript, do I dare contemplate what the future holds?
In the final analysis, I doubt that anyone will be interested in broadcasting the image of me in my cottage on the river "forever and throughout the universe." I have signed the releases and faxed them back to Los Angeles.
The writer is a professor of civil engineering and of history at Duke University.