Pulps and the dual copyright

Leave a comment

Just when you think you’ve got a grasp on US copyrights, and have checked through all the records for the author or their estate filing renewals, another quirk raises its head. The author is not always the only one with the power to renew and that renewal doesn’t even have to be direct. If the work was published in a periodical or other collective work, frequently a pulp magazine in my case (although this applies to newspapers, anthologies, encyclopedias, and many other types of publication), then the publisher might have the authority to renew the copyright as well.

This has actually been brought up here before in my post about Philip K. Dick’s Time Pawn being deleted.

As far as I can tell, prior to 1978, the publisher of a periodical was presumed to acquire all rights from the author when they purchased a work for publication, unless a contract between them explicitly stated otherwise. There appears to be an associated situation where a periodical publishing a licensed work without the author’s copyright notice would put that work into the public domain (if it was the first publication of that work; first publication is the important one legally, the point at which it is fixed in tangible form).

One key piece of case history seems to be Goodis v. United Artists Television, Inc. (a 1969-70 case), which includes the finding “where a magazine has purchased the right of first publication […] copyright notice in the magazine’s name is sufficient to obtain a valid copyright on behalf of the beneficial owner, the author or proprietor.”

Without knowledge of the precise details of any contract, many works can theoretically be under two separate copyrights at the same time: author and publisher. If the author allowed the copyright to lapse, but the issue of the magazine had its copyright renewed, then the work is still copyrighted. If the publisher allowed the copyright on the issue to lapse, but the author renewed the copyright, then the work is still copyrighted. If both renewed, the two parties probably need to retain lawyers to work things out between themselves but Wikisource and the public domain are almost definitely out of luck; the work is still copyrighted.

As far as Wikisource is concerned, without evidence to the contrary, the project must assume the worst case (from the project’s point of view), that either or both copyrights are valid.

Cases where the periodical’s copyright have lapsed but individual works have not are some of the most awkward for me. The owners of Weird Tales and Amazing Stories almost never renewed their own copyrights (probably because both changed hands a few times over the years), so most of the individual issues are broadly in the public domain. However, individual authors sometimes did renew specific works, meaning that a single short story in the magazine is under copyright while the rest is not. Rather than writing off the entire thing, I have redacted the scans, when I upload them, to omit the copyrighted parts. This is even more awkward when the copyrighted work shares a page with a public domain piece.

Sometimes the opposite is true.  The author hasn’t bothered to renew for whatever reason but the magazine has.  In particular, I know this applies to a few of the works of Howard and Lovecraft.  In the same way, a lot of Golden Age science fiction is off-limits because the other two of the Big Four SF magazines, Astounding Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories (along with the rest of the Thrilling range), did renew their copyrights at the magazine level.

With periodicals, both have to be checked before they can be transcribed to Wikisource and released into the wild.

Why I deleted the Qur’an

Leave a comment

As we near the end of Ramadan and Eid approaches, it seems somewhat topical to bring up the time I deleted the Holy Qur’an as a copyright violation.

Despite being about one-and-a-half millennia old,* the Qur’an was still under copyright in the United States, so it had to go. (Strictly speaking, I just nominated it for deletion, rather than actually deleting it myself, but it’s close enough.)

This is not a joke about the United States’ famously long periods of copyright protection.  The problem in this case is something that often seems to be missed in other cases too.  This copy of the Qur’an was an English translation and a translator receives a brand new copyright on their work in addition to any potential copyright that may or may not apply to the original.  The true Arabic original is very much in the public domain.  I doubt the translator in question, Indian Islamic scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953), wanted to restrict access to his work, and very much doubt the Prophet (pbuh) would want that either, but we have no proof it was ever released, so copyright law must apply.

This was complicated by the fact that Ali published his 1934 version in Lahore, a part of British India that is now Pakistan, although he was born in Bombay, a part that is now India, and died in Surrey, which was and is in the United Kingdom. Quite which body of copyright law to use was unclear. Unusually, the URAA laws solved some of this because, whichever country was involved, it was still under copyright in 1996, so it became copyrighted in the United States, if it wasn’t already, and remains so under that country’s laws.

(For reference: Pakistan is the most generous—from a certain point of view—and uses Life+50 for its copyright terms, so it would have become public domain there in 2004. India uses Life+60, so it actually entered the public domain there at the beginning of this year. The UK uses Life+70, so it is still under copyright there for another decade.)

You can still find his translation on Wikilivres (Canada uses Life+50 just like Pakistan) and a derivative on Project Gutenberg (I don’t know why).

I’ve done a little work in adding a new, non-copyrighted Qur’an to Wikisource but it is not currently my priority (it’s the most important book of the world’s second largest, and fastest growing, religion; it isn’t hard to get a copy if you want one).

* EDIT: There was a mistake in my original post, stating just 500 years instead of 1,500 years. I’m not sure how that happened but I only noticed after I made the post.

Sherlock Holmes vs. the Martians

Leave a comment

It is often assumed that something that is generically old-ish is “obviously” in the public domain.  This is not necessarily true.  Add to that the variation between the copyright laws of different nations and some odd things can happen.

The United States gets a lot of stick for its copyright laws and long copyright terms (although France is to blame for a lot of that; I prefer America’s old registration and renewal system). However, it isn’t the only country to throw unexpected spanners in the public domain’s works, and a combination of different country’s laws can have odd results.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are entirely in the public domain almost everywhere on Earth—except in the United States. The United Kingdom uses Life+70, or 70 years pma (post mortem author), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, so his works entered the public domain in their home country in 2001. The Rule of the Shorter Term means that this applies to most other countries as well. In America, however, Doyle’s children renewed the copyright on most of his last collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, per the laws of the time and subsequent amendments, granting it 67 extra years of protection, on top of the standard 28 from the date of publication. The majority of the Holmes stories are out of copyright as  they are everywhere else but the last of these particular stories will not enter the public domain until 2023. (To add confusion, these stories were in initially in the public domain in the UK in 1981 under Life+50 terms, were dragged back into copyright in 1996 by European harmonisation, then returned to the public domain in 2001. In countries like Canada and Australia, which maintain the old Life+50 term, they were public domain in 1981 and stayed there.)

H. G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898 and died in 1946, so at time of writing, all of his works are still under copyright in Britain. They will enter the public domain on 1st January 2017. In America, however, copyright terms were measured from the date of first publication and only lasted for either 28, 42 or 56 years; so it entered the public domain in that country in either 1927, 1941 (both during Wells’ lifetime), or 1955—depending on the exact details of the copyright situation, of which I am not aware.

Both are British in origin, from authors who are considered to be Victorian (although both died in the Twentieth century) but the copyright situations vary wildly.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place“, the last of the Holmes canon, first published in 1927, entered the public domain in its home country in 2001, but won’t enter the public domain in America until 22 years later. Conversely, The War of the Worlds, first published much earlier in 1898, entered the public domain in America in 1955 at the latest, but won’t enter the public domain in its home country until 62 years later (possibly even 90 years later if the shortest of the possible terms is correct).

As ever, copyright can be odd and counter-intuitive. Also: generically old things aren’t necessarily free just because they seem old.

Adventures in Copyright

Leave a comment

I didn’t mean for this blog to be all about copyright, and the blind fumbling through its labyrinthine corridors that is the lot of Wikimedians, but looking at my little tag cloud gadget, copyright is clearly the most common topic so far. It’s going to get more common in the near future.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really understand copyright law. Like many Wikimedians, I am an amateur enthusiast just trying to get the project I like to run properly. It is definitely an area fraught with problems, however.

For example, I have been accused of practising law without a licence just because I listed the years when some of Robert E. Howard’s works would drop out of copyright and therefore which were still protected. All this involved was adding Wikisource’s “copyright until” template, which shows an end date for an item and converts itself to a wikilink at that time. I thought this would be useful, especially as some of his still-copyrighted works were getting uploaded now and again by good-faith users, and it only involves looking up conditions on a table and adding some numbers together. It shouldn’t be controversial to share basic information like that, but here we are. (Howard is my favourite author but I’ve had some of his works deleted from Wikisource when they turned out not to be in the public domain after all.)

Nevertheless, I’ve picked up a few bits and pieces in my time on Wikisource and it’s interesting to find all the little quirks in what should be a simple binary choice (either still-protected or public-domain).  So here starts a brief series of posts on the random foibles and oddities I’ve encountered so far.

Fafiation (n.)

1 Comment

I’ve been forced away from it all recently, with little editing on any wiki, missing a few wikimeets and no blogging. There was no one cause, just lots of little things that started to take up more time than usual, leading up to the most random of all: my chair breaking (it seems trivial but it’s very hard to type, or even comfortably use a computer, without it). I’ll have a new chair soon, so perhaps I’ll be able to dive back into things shortly.

One thing I did find, however, was that I had time during lunch breaks at work to make small edits on Wiktionary. I’ve defined a word or two in the past, mostly after checking unusual words on Wikisource, but this ironically turned out to be my biggest effort on the project.

It can be quite quick and easy to do, although I fear it’s developing into yet another personal project (or several). Spinning out of my interest in pulp magazines, early fandom and related media, I’ve been adding fanspeak terms of the era. For example:


fafiation (plural fafiations)

1. (dated, fandom slang) The act of fafiating; exiting involvement in fandom due to other obligations.


I own a dictionary of science fiction and SF fandom words, Brave New Words by Jeff Prucher (2007, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-538706-3, FYI), which makes this both a touch easier and a touch more verifiable. Not to mention the other sources I’ve found over time on the internet, like a digital transcript of the 1944 Fancyclopedia that arguably started all of this and many transcribed fanzines of yesteryear.

I expect I’ll find more citations as I work on transcribing more pulp magazines. I think I’ll continue adding to Wiktionary even as I’m getting back on top of everything else.

Blackletter is broken again


Example text in a blackletter, or fraktur, typeface.The Wikisource template blackletter is broken again.  All this template does is render text is a different font, in this case UnifrakturMaguntia, so this isn’t critical.  It is a little annoying, however, as this occurred without warning and it’s the second time it’s happened now.

Wikisource is different from its sister projects in that it tries to remain as faithful as possible to a specific, pre-existing source.  We don’t make a distinction between serifed and non-serifed fonts but be do like to reproduce some more significant type, like red “ink” and blackletter (aka fraktur or gothic) text, whether it is decorative or meant to confer some meaning.

This was supported by WebFonts but was initially broken by the move to the Universal Language Selector.  That was easily fixed but now the ULS has been changed to an opt-in preference, so the majority of Wikisource’s readers cannot see the font.  Also affected are the language-specific fonts, such as small pieces of Greek or Arabic within otherwise English text in the Latin script.  This will hopefully be fixed soon (it isn’t the biggest effect of the change) but it may be necessary to stop using these extensions in this way and find an alternative.

As an aside: We still don’t have an insular font.  Where needed, there is currently a template inserting an SVG image for each letter, which isn’t ideal.

Works and Editions

Leave a comment

Title page from the 1911 edition of Treasure Island

Just as I’ve been getting back up to speed with Wikisource following an internet-less Christmas, Wikisource has begun to be integrated with Wikidata.  At the moment, this just means interwiki links and new Wikidata pages but, naturally, some small problems have already occurred.  The most significant I’ve seen is the question of how to handle the mainspace.

Wikisource is the third of the Wikimedia sorority to be supported by Wikidata, after big sister Wikipedia and little, adopted sister Wikivoyage (or possibly fourth if we count the seemingly partial support of Commons).  Wikisource is different from these projects because, while the others will usually just have one page for each item, Wikisource can host multiple editions of the same work, each requiring a separate but linked data item.  (Then there is the subject of subpages but we’ll leave that for now.)

The books task force on Wikidata had already come up with a system to implement this: two separate classes of item, a “work” item to cover the text in general and one or more “edition” items to cover individual instances of that text.  A “work” item will usually correspond with the article on Wikipedia (if one exists), listing general metadata that are common to all instances of the text; like the title, the author and so forth.  The “edition” item would list specific metadata that is not shared between all instances of the text; like the publisher, the date of publication, the place of publication, the illustrator, the translator, the editor, and so forth.

This is best illustrated with Treasure Island as English Wikisource has two distinct and sourced versions of that text.  (See fig. 1.)

The page “Treasure Island” is a versions page (one of three types of disambiguation page on English Wikisource).  Attached to this are two texts: “Treasure Island (1883)” for the first book publication of the story, published by Cassell & Company (note that is was originally serialised in a magazine, which we do not have yet), and “Treasure Island (1911)” for an American edition published in 1911 by Charles Scriber’s Sons (Wikisource does not strictly require notability but, if it did, this edition would be notable for its N.C. Wyeth illustrations).

The disambiguation page has the associated data item Q185118, which is also the item used by Wikipedia and Commons.  The 1883 work has the data item Q14944007 and the 1911 work has the data item Q14944010; both link to the first item with the “edition of” property.

Diagram showing two versions of Treasure Island as children of the disambiguation page

Fig 1: Treasure Island on English Wikisource.

However, other Wikisources only have one translation each of Treasure Island.  If these each have their own “edition” data item, containing its unique metadata, then the interwiki function breaks down.

If the interwiki links are kept at the edition level, then few if any interwiki links will exist between works on Wikisource.  There might be a dozen different editions of Treasure Island in as many languages but, as each is different with different metadata, they will each have separate data items.

Ideally, from a database point of view, each Wikisource will also have a separation between the “work” and the “edition(s)”.  This occurs in this case on English Wikisource because there is a disambiguation page at the “work” level.  To implement this on a large scale, however, would require a disambiguation page for every work on every Wikisource, even if most would only contain a single link to a text (the “edition”); see fig. 2 for an example.  This would work from a computing point of view but it is unlikely to be popular or intuitive for humans.

Diagram of ideal situation, with interwiki linking via disambiguation pages

Fig 2: Wikilinking between disambiguation pages.

Practically, the solution is to mix the classes, as shown in fig. 3.  In this case, English Wikisource will (correctly) have the interwikis at the disambiguation level, connecting to the general “work” data item on Wikidata.  The two versions of Treasure Island in English will link to the disambiguation page within Wikisource as normal and would each have their own, separate Wikidata item with their individual data (but would not have interwiki links to any other language).  The non-English Wikisources will have no “work” level data item, instead linking their “editions” directly to the “work”.  This is messy and may confuse future users, not to mention depriving the non-English editions of their own data items with their individual metadata on Wikidata.  It isn’t good practice for a database but it may be the best compromise.

Diagram of compromise situation, with interwiki linking via both disambiguation pages and individual instances of the text

Fig 3: Wikilinking split between both levels.

This isn’t just an English vs. Other-Languages situation.  The roles are almost certainly reversed in some cases and the majority of works on English Wikisource stand alone, raising the question of whether they should have their own “edition” data items with specific data or link directly to the general “work” item.

A peripheral issue is that some data items on Wikidata do have metadata, often derived from Wikipedia articles, which would be inconsistent with Wikisource’s texts (or just wrong in some cases).

One long term goal for Wikisource-on-Wikidata is to centralise metadata, which is currently held both on Commons (for the scan file) and on Wikisource (primarily on the scan’s Index page, with some in the mainspace).  It should also facilitate interproject links, to quickly show a Wikipedian (for example) that associated content exists on other projects like Wikisource, Wikivoyage or Commons, possibly with a brief summary.  Neither may be possible without consistent data available.

This problem has not really been solved yet and it might be a while before a stable solution develops.

Wiki log jam

Leave a comment

Every so often a log jam appears to happen in my life: meatspace or virtual. I can’t point to any one issue but not a lot gets done when this happens.

On Wikisource, this means I have not achieved a lot in a month or so. Perhaps worse, each task to which I have committed myself to is now getting in the way of every other task, further diluting whatever effort I make. I’ve tried to cut down on tasks but more keep coming up and I really want to do a lot of them.

Wikisource, and the other sister projects in the family (‘pedia, ‘voyage et al), appear to be quite bad for this. It’s hard to keep focussed sometimes.

2013 was going to be my Year of Amazing Stories, but that is almost certainly bumped to 2014 now. I need to finish Weird Tales first. I have most of one issue left (of those available) and bits and pieces across the others, because I used to do a page or two when I only had a little spare time, so I skipped some of the more complicated stuff.  Especially the adverts.

Two months left to do all that, if I want to push Amazing Stories from the start of next year. And I want to complete all the acts from Elizabeth I’s first regnal year. And I have a Confederate roster to reformat and reassemble. And I have several national anthems to code out in Score. And some policies to write. And Lua to learn. And…

The gender gap and Wikisource

1 Comment

As mentioned before, last month was Female Author Month on Wikisource. Combined with recent events, such as the increased coverage of misogynistic trolling in British media, I’ve been curious about the infamous Wikimedia gender gap. However, my main interest is Wikisource and, despite article after article, all coverage is relentlessly focussed on Wikipedia.

One of the few resources that does cover Wikisource is Spanish Wikipedian emijrp’s gender-gap-related “edits by project family” tool. This allows us to see the edits of declared-male and declared-female editors on each Wikimedia project. The following was the graph as at 6th September 2013:

Wikimedia gender gap chart as at 2013-09-06

Wikisource is the purple line.

I have been checking the graphs occasionally for a while, so I actually have a copy of the same from roughly a year ago (I wasn’t intending to keep constant records, it was just something I found interesting, so I don’t have anything precisely one year old; if that is possible via a different tool then I don’t know about it). This graph was the situation as at 1st June 2012:

Wikimedia gender gap chart as at 2012-06-01

It turns out Wikisource does really well. In the modern graph, Wikisource is almost always ahead of its sisters and the older graph shows it still being mostly ahead (or at least near the top) of the pack. Assuming these two periods are representative, we might actually be getting better: from an average of about 20/80 to 30/70. (Credit should go to Wikiquote as well for being the only project to achieve a female majority, and to do so in both graphs.)

(Small caveat: This data is based on the declared gender of each editor, set individually in their own preferences. It is possible there are more women editing but they haven’t declared their sex; or vice versa, men may even be under-represented here. If so, this could be recursive, as a reaction against perceptions of the gender gap or experience of being online; gender-anonymity may be a welcome break from the harassment.)

I tried checking Wikimedia’s gender gap mailing list for more but there wasn’t much about Wikisource, although there is some acknowledgement that it is better at equality than the other projects. A lot of the recent posts actually seemed to be men trying to explain sexism to women.

However, while good by Wikimedia standards, Wikisource’s edits still aren’t a 50/50 split. All things being equal, there should be parity between male and female editors. As there is no parity, it would follow that all things are not equal. Presumably the reasons are similar to those often cited for Wikipedia.

Nevertheless, Wikisource is apparently doing something better than its sisters.

It can’t be the interface, which is one of the reasons suggested for the gender gap in the past. Wikisource has the same interface as the others and a work-flow process that causes even experienced Wikipedians to run gibbering in terror. Of course, it could be that the semi-structured proofreading work-flow is more compliant with the general mindset of female users, but the gibbering in terror seems gender-equal from my purely anecdotal, not-even-slightly-scientific perspective.

It isn’t necessarily the lack of a strong social element (another potential reason). No Wikimedia project has this, so it’s hard to judge the effect.

Lack of free time would also be somewhat neutral between all projects. Proofreading a page is a simple micro-contribution but other projects have similar, and even easier, tasks. Adding a listing on Wikivoyage is probably the simplest, followed by adding an entry on Wikiquote (in my opinion at least).

It could be the environment. Wikisource is a much friendlier place than other projects. At least, that’s my opinion and part of the reason I ended up calling it my principal wiki. This could be due to the size of the project (about 300 active editors) but it might also be its nature. Research apparently shows that women are put off by argumentative and confrontational environments. Of all the sister projects, Wikipedia is an *especially* argumentative and confrontational environment, with virtual knife-fights over edits and gruelling wars of attrition to become the alpha-editor of a particular article. Wikisource does not offer quite as much fuel for confrontation. The words have already been written and cannot be changed. Individual expression comes in the form of choosing the material to transcribe, and it’s hard to even argue against that because the ultimate aspiration of the project is the transcription of all human art, literature and knowledge. This is not to say there are never any arguments or confrontation but they are rarer.

It might also be the nature of the project. Yet another reason suggested for the gender gap on Wikipedia is a lack of self-confidence among women, possibly as a result of socialisation. This may seem an odd tangent but I’ve heard it said that women do gardening while men do landscaping. It’s a joke about gendered language and thought: she nurtures plants and helps them grow; he assert himself upon nature and bends the plants to his will. In this sense, Wikipedia is very much about asserting knowledge. Wikisource is more about nurturing, or curating, knowledge. The text already exists and Wikisource makes it better, allowing it to be easily read, communicated to and re-used by many more people. Some of the other projects with a high proportion of female-editors, such as Wikiquote, are similar in nature (ie. identifying a quotation and adding it the list requires a little more assertion, but not much more).

Some combination of the above may be in effect. For example, increased complexity off-setting the friendlier environment. On the other hand, I may have missed something important.

Despite writing all of this, I admit that none of these thoughts really help Wikisource or its sister projects very much. The visual editor will eventually be deployed on Wikisource and even smaller micro-contributions (nano-contributions?) are planned for the future, so that covers some of the parts that may not even be part of the problem. We might be able to make more of the environment. I’m not sure if any other project could easily apply it, as it’s fundamental to the nature of the project itself.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to look at this.

Author demographics

Leave a comment

August 2013 was Female Author Month on Wikisource, with two works by women transcribed from scratch via the community Proofread of the Month and a third work partly validated.[1] This is a result of a request for more works by female authors made on Scriptorium.

However, we don’t actually know if we have a significant dearth of female-authored works. We don’t have any demographic information about our authors beyond era, nationality (usually) and religion (sometimes).

Wikidata may help with that, whenever it is rolled out to the Wikisources. Amending each and every author page on English Wikisource would be hard work at the moment because the process would have to be mostly manual. However, with Wikidata, we wouldn’t even need a bot. The author header template (and maybe a Lua module) could just read the Wikidata “sex” property (P21) and apply a hidden tracking category.

This could be extended to other metadata. We could have tracking categories for the entire QUILTBAG[2] range with the addition of the “sexual orientation” property (P91) and whatever is used to cover transsexuality. Ethnicity might be possible with the “ethnic group” property (P172). There may be even more demographics worth tracking too, and these could be easily added over time.

This might bring to mind the recent controversy over Wikipedia consigning female authors to be categorised into a female author ghetto, while leaving male authors categorised as just authors. However, Wikisource wouldn’t be discriminating as this approach would be fully automated and applied equally to all authors in the Authorspace. Hidden categories would avoid labelling authors too much; not to mention avoiding redundant information many readers could deduce from the name and/or portrait.

Then we would actually know where we stand.


  1. These were: Marriage as a Trade by Cicely HamiltonDiaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan edited by Annie Shepley Omori; and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
  2. QUILTBAG: Queer Intersexual Lesbian Transsexual Bisexual Asexual Gay
    EDIT: Actually, I got this wrong.  The acronym stands for Queer/Questioning Undecided Intersex Lesbian Trans(-gender/-exual) Bisexual Asexual Gay.  See Wiktionary for a full definition and history.  Personally I would have merged the first two into Quantumsexual, but that’s just me.

Older Entries