Why I deleted the Qur’an

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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

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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

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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.)

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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.