Dr. Seuss, Trans Books, and Monopolies — Oh My!

Benjamin Marsh
5 min readMar 3, 2021

Broadside salvos aplenty on all sides of the culture wars this week.

Missed in the smoke of battle was the true source of the conflict. Not liberalism or conservativism, but a broad undercurrent of questionable laws which add fervor to the already feverish battle. Inasmuch as we might get mad because those people did that thing, we must recall that the only reason those people could do that thing is because bad policy has a compounding effect on bad ideas and bad actions.

Bad laws make bad people worse, or let bad people do bad things in the first place in ways that they otherwise should not be able to.

Amazon and When Harry Became Sally

Disclaimer: I am reliably informed that I am rabidly uninformed on the transgender stuff. I have not read this book.

Amazon took When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment off all its virtual shelves this past week. The book just *poof* disappeared without an explanation. The book, written by conservative Catholic scholar and new head of the DC conservative think-tank Ethics and Public Policy Center, is surely enemy number 1 in certain Transgender-advocate spaces. Conservatives are up in arms, and with good reason! Amazon simply erasing a book is frightening in a private-enterprise-becomes-Orwellian way. Especially when that same Amazon prints literally everything else on the earth, up to and including Mein Kampf.

The quandary facing conservatives is that the sort of free market hands-off approach to antitrust and regulation which lead to this moment is the hallmark of conservative business policy. Republicans have long championed deregulation, and anti-trust lawyers will tell you the enforcement division in the DOJ is much like a lazy western saloon during Republican administrations. Conservatives favor pro-business reforms in general.

The Association of American Publishers has filed papers with the Federal Trade Commission highlighting the risk Amazon poses to all publishers:

“Amazon’s scale of operation and share of the market for book distribution has reached the point that no publisher can afford to be absent from its online store.

“A year ago, The New York Times reported that Amazon controlled 50 percent of all book distribution, but for some industry suppliers, the actual figure may be much higher, with Amazon accounting for more than 70 or 80 percent of sales. Whether it is the negative impact on booksellers of Amazon forcing publishers to predominantly use its platform, the hostile environment for booksellers on Amazon who see no choice but to sell there, or Amazon’s predatory pricing, the point is that Amazon’s concomitant market dominance allows it to engage in systematic below-cost pricing of books to squash competition in the book selling industry as a whole.

Everything Amazon did seems to be perfectly legal. The only way to change this legality would be to pass laws heightening regulations or breaking up these large technology companies, something which conservatives would largely despise.

Is there a way through this morass? I am not smart enough or lawer-y enough to know, but something’s gotta give: either it is OK for an almost-monopoly to erase a perspective it does not like, or the government needs more power to stop it.

Suess’s Eternal Copyright

Kerfluffle this week as the company which owns Dr. Seuss’s works pulled 6 of them because of racist images therein.

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises told The Associated Press in a statement that coincided with the late author and illustrator’s birthday.

For 180 years of American history, authors and creators could only expect 28 years of protection for their work. Then big companies got greedy as the timeline changed:

in Copyright Act of 1976 to “Either 75 years or the life of the author plus 50 years” and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, because it prevented the copyright from expiring on the first commercial success of the cartoon character Mickey Mouse), which increased it even more, to 120 years, or the life of the author plus 70 years.

While the former bill (1976) was required as part of a Universal Copyright Convention to which the United States signed on in 1955, the latter really was corporate hardball with both parties bought in:

1976 bill: 316–7 in the House, 97–0 in the Senate.

1998 bill: Voice vote in the House (usually means unanimous), unanimous consent in the Senate

The bill was all about business. “Other parties that lobbied in favor of the Bono Act were Time Warner, Universal, Viacom, the major professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB).” Why? Because copyright was no longer about the producers and creators, but about the big companies who profited from their work and likeness.

Dr. Suess did not pull his own books. He passed away in the 90’s. If we were practicing copyright as we did when he was born in 1904, his works would already be public domain.

Why would they do this? To keep making money!

“He remains popular, earning an estimated $33 million before taxes in 2020, up from just $9.5 million five years ago, the company said. Forbes listed him №2 on its highest-paid dead celebrities of 2020, behind only the late pop star Michael Jackson.”

That is a LOT of money for a dead author who has no say in how his works are being used. This company is very active in enforcing its copyrights! And now the public will still have no say over this popular author until… let’s see… 2061.

Really Only Three Options When Companies Do Things You Don’t Like

1. Boycott the companies that made them. Hilariously, people thought they would HURT the company which owns the rights to Dr. Seuss by… buying all the other Seuss books? They were the top sellers on Amazon today! That is the very opposite of a boycott. Whoops!

2. Say “I don’t like that” and move on.

3. Lobby your political representatives to make actual changes to actual law and not just settle for a call-in to Hannity to bolster their public image while not actually doing anything to solve the problem.

So much of the culture war is posturing by politicians to get them to like you. What has actually changed on the hot issues you care about? Very little, I suspect. Because the folks in charge don’t have to actually change anything… they just need you mad enough to vote for them.

NOT Dr Seuss, BTW