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.

Copyright illiteracy redux

Leave a comment

Original Weird Tales illustration for

The problems of copyright-renewed works being added to Wikisource continue.  In this case, by me.  I added “Tell Your Fortune” by Robert Bloch to Wikisource as part of Weird Tales (vol. 42, no. 4, May 1950).  Bloch, author of Psycho and mentee of Lovecraft, mostly renewed his copyrights but missed the occasional piece.  He has a few letters hosted on Wikisource already but this would have been his first work of fiction.  I uploaded it, transcribed it, proofread it and eventually transcluded (ie. “published”) it when the work was done. 

And then it transpired that the copyright had been renewed after all and hosting it on Wikisource is illegal.

I honestly did try to make sure that I caught all the copyright renewals.  I checked scans of the copyright renewal catalogues, transcriptions of those scans, the US Copyright Office’s online database and Google searches.  1950 is an odd year as it was transitional; renewals can be recorded in either the old-style printed catalogues or on the newer official database. There is no complete, single source for this type of renewal.  I created Weird Tales and its subpages mostly to record information like this for this precise reason.  I did catch some other renewals in this issue, “The Last Three Ships” by Margaret St. Clair and “The Man on B-17” by August Derleth, and redacted them from the scan accordingly.  This one escaped me, however, despite being clearly entered on the Copyright Office’s database.

So, it’s worth quadruple-checking the copyrights before you do all of the work necessary to get a text on Wikisource.

There are still usable parts of the issue, such as the poem “Luna Aeternalis” by Clark Ashton Smith and the short story “The Triangle of Terror” by William F. Temple.  Smith has many works already on Wikisource but few of them are backed by scans yet (and some were recently deleted and re-hosted in Canada on Wikilivres).  Temple, a British science fiction author, is new to Wikisource.  This story is actually interesting copyright-wise because Temple only died in 1989 and so his works are still under copyright in the UK.  As this work was first published in the US, however, it is in the public domain under American law due to non-renewal.

A Margaret Thatcher Library and Museum?

Leave a comment

It seems I may have spoken too soon in my last post.

In that post I mentioned the international copyright discrepancy which meant that the only public domain work on Margaret Thatcher’s author page was one released by the Federal Government of the United States.  Modern US Presidents each have a federally operated library making such historical materials available.  It seems like there may be hope of a British equivalent after all. (NB: Technically, there is one already, the Gladstone Library in Wales, but they are rare and I don’t believe that one is quite the same thing.)

A Margaret Thatcher Library and Museum Project has recently been announced.  It was inspired by and will be modelled on the Ronald Reagan Library in California and, if it goes ahead, it will set up a similar institution in central London.  It was the idea of Donal Blaney, chief executive of Conservative Way Forward, in 2009 and is supported by members of the Conservative Party (including some secretaries of state, so this might actually happen).

The Thatcher Library is currently only proposed, although it appears to have significant backing and funding already.  I have not seen any confirmation about the library’s contents yet.  The US libraries are run as part of the National Archives & Records Administration, while the UK equivalent will be a private foundation, separate from the UK’s National Archives (although pre-Hoover US libraries are in a similar state).  How that affects the material from Margaret Thatcher’s premiership held by the Archives is unknown; The Times suggests that the Library may hold facsimiles.  There is also the Thatcher Archive at Cambridge University and The Margaret Thatcher Foundation, which cover similar ground.

It also remains to be seen just how much like a US presidential library this institution will be.  That all federal government documents are in the public domain in that country is a result of SCOTUS case law and eventual formal codification in US law.  There is nothing similar in the UK and there is no guarantee that the Thatcher Library will emulate this aspect of the US system.

Nevertheless, this could be an important step forward for the open culture movement in the United Kingdom.  Maybe one day Wikimedia UK will even be arranging a Wikimedian in Residence there and Wikisource will finally have a fuller bibliography on Margaret Thatcher’s author page.

Margaret Thatcher and the oddities of copyright

1 Comment

Portrait photograph of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher in 1981 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The recent, sad death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has highlighted an odd juxtaposition of international copyright laws. (Yes, this is yet another copyright post.) Her author page received 95 page views on 8th April, which is about the same traffic it usually gets in an entire month. However, the page only links to two works, one of which I have now tagged as a copyright violation (her famous “the lady’s not for turning” conference speech, which is probably under copyright until the early 2080’s).

The somewhat odd situation being highlighted is due to the other work on that page. I transcribed and added it not long ago. It’s a memcon, a memorandum of a conversation, with President Gerald Ford before Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. This document was made available by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, part of the American presidential library system. It is in the public domain because all works by officers of the Federal Government of the United States, made as part of their official duties, are in the public domain under United States law. So, it would appear that the only way to read any of the works of Margaret Thatchers, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on Wikisource is via the government of the United States of America.

Fortunately, there is also a link to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, which does have a complete, online collection of all of her speeches, interviews, etc. So they are not lost or hidden but they aren’t free. It is not necessarily a problem, bar potentially limiting distribution and preventing things like crowd-sourced translation. It is, nevertheless, still a very odd position in which to be.

The internal cost of copyright illiteracy


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.