More so than most other Wikimedia projects, except perhaps Commons, copyright is a big deal for Wikisource. Obviously we can only host public domain or freely licensed works; which is generally understood. The problem comes from copyright law itself not being generally understood. (I can’t claim to be especially knowledgeable about copyright myself but I have picked up a lot as part of the Wikisource community.)
Many people apparently believe certain works must or should be out of copyright without checking or they do check but miss some detail of copyright law. Wikisource as a project can deal with this by deletion but it still impacts volunteers.
A recent example is the science fiction short story “Time Pawn” by Philip K. Dick, a story that was published in 1954 in an issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Under the law of the time, the initial copyright period ended in 1982 when it could have been renewed for another period. As this didn’t happen it would seem to have entered the public domain. However, while the short story was not renewed, the issue of the magazine itself was, under renewal registration number RE0000112616 in January 1982 by CBS Publications. It has been established, in Goodis v. United Artists Television, Inc., “that where a magazine has purchased the right of first publication under circumstances which show that the author has no intention to donate his work to the public, copyright notice in the magazine’s name is sufficient to obtain a valid copyright on behalf of the beneficial owner, the author or proprietor.” Lacking information to the contrary, we must assume that this applies to Dick’s story; the renewal of the copyright on Thrilling Wonder Stories also renewed the copyright on “Time Pawn” so, unless it was reassigned, CBS currently hold the rights on the story until about 2050.
The real issue here is that another user, not the uploader, completed the proofreading of the entire story in good faith. At which point it was noticed by yet another user and rightly marked it as a copyright violation. Now that good-faith user’s effort is wasted and they may be permanently disillusioned with the project. Everyone loses.
This is actually partly my fault. I noticed the upload and I tagged a separate, similar upload (“Small Town“) for deletion for the same reason but I didn’t connect the two.
I’m not sure what else can be done to prevent things like this from happening. Both Wikisource and Commons already have help pages on copyright that should explain the problem. Constant vigilance (and better awareness on my part, at least) may be the only solution, but that is unlikely to be foolproof.
Note 1: “Small Town” was published in Amazing Stories, which hardly ever had its copyrights renewed, in the very first issue to do so. Conversely, Thrilling Wonder Stories, along with the entire “Thrilling…” stable of magazines, apparently had consistent copyright renewals across the board. Ironically, that isn’t true under its earlier incarnation as simply Wonder Stories, a pulp also created by Hugo Gernsback after he lost control of Amazing Stories.
Note 2: A later version of “Time Pawn” (published in Startling Stories, Summer 1955) appears to have been renewed as well, under RE0000190631 in 1983 by Dick’s children. This may or may not be relevant; a court could declare it close enough.