sadi14oct2007 My forthcoming book is a primer on the works of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—also, a semi-biography for those who know a little but want to know more. That name might not ring a bell, but perhaps his pseudonym does, Lewis Carroll.

For a project like this, relying on old text and images from the nineteenth century, isn’t everything in the pub domain? Wrong. I must spend hour after hour researching rights, both in the library and on the Web. Consider the photographs taken by Carroll himself; many of the prints are in private collections, and the “proper” thing to do is to pay to license the photographs. That can get pricey.

Carrollian copyright maze

Dover published a book of Carroll “postcards” of his photographs, but I thought Dover printed only work in the public domain. Or maybe not? Should I call Dover, then, for permission? Or did the company, too, have to seek permission from someone else? I can’t say; all I know is that the bulk of Carroll’s work is not necessarily in the public domain for my purposes. For word counts, etc., I need to contact an agency in London and say “roughly” what I plan to use. This is where it gets really frustrating. I ring and ask, Should I send a list of the works I would like to reproduce? I get a flat answer, No. Then how will you know what I would like to use? Give us an approximation, the agency tells me. What does this even mean? I am caught in a Carrollian maze of complex rights issues.

Sir John Tenniel‘s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are in the public domain, but not if they are in color, I am told. I am not sure if this is true, but it’s what I was told on good authority. As for other illustrators such as Harry Furniss, I don’t know. As much as I’d hope they are in public domain, I am nervous at this point about printing any image in the book without paying for it—no small challenge, since publishers hate to spend much money to license images for use in a typical author’s book. You need a huge name for the publisher to loosen the purse strings. I think, “Not yet. Maybe someday.”

The Ethernet surprise

Amid the challenges of my library work, I find pleasant surprises. I discover that The Morgan Library, in New York City, home to an excellent Carroll collection, allows you to use an Ethernet cable to access not only the Morgan holdings but also the Web in general. What you cannot use, surely for security reasons, is WiFi. The same is true of The Houghton Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard. You can bring your computer and be hooked up to the Ethernet with no problem. It’s actually surprising and wonderful to know that such old institutions that carry such rare material can be open-minded toward technology. I have found the IT people, the staff of the Reading Room, to be among the most helpful groups I have worked with.

But that does not spare me the problems of dealing with rights issues, especially for a printed book, which, ironically, counts more to Luddites than do print books.

Special hassles for writers of print works

I see many color illustrations of Carroll’s works online; surely the Web sites involved did not have to pay for the rights and, instead, just scanned the images from a book and used them this way—which seems fair considering that these books were published before 1898. All kinds of gray areas exist for writers of print works. You just might have to be on very good terms with the heirs to use a few words from of an uncle or grandfather or great-grandfather.

I ran into this with an agent who represented an estate I had to work with. It was just part of my job as a writer to ask about certain poems, etc., that I wished to use and to quote. Some I wanted to reproduce in their entirety, but hadn’t the copyright, even with extensions, lapsed? Were there permissions fees after all? Could I send them to her a preview of what I’d be using, I asked?


Well, I asked the agent, how would she know what I planned to use?

“Send me a word count.”

A word count? What does that mean? It doesn’t at all speak to the content of the work I want to publish, nor is it any way to run an estate because one could extract from anything in that case and take it out of context. Besides, did the agent really mean to sit down and count all of the various words and sources and say this part or that part?

No, she didn’t want that either. I don’t know what she wanted because she was obtuse, willfully it seemed, and I finally gave up and sought my permissions elsewhere.

Part of the red tape authors suffer

Writing books can be both a joy and a bane. Finding a publisher is definitely a bane, publication or a contract is certainly the joy, and the rest of this is needless red tape that may not even need to exist or have any legal legitimacy—if you think about copyright law. See my earlier TeleRead writings on copyright basics and fair use.

At the end of the day, it is just you and your computer, in a big and wonderful room full of amazing books and personal effects from someone’s amazing life. To think that I could sit and hold Lewis Carroll’s watch, not just gaze at an image through an Ethernet connection, may seem like nothing to you. But nothing tells time like the real thing, and you can’t beat time. I just wish I didn’t have to devote so much of it to copyright-related paperwork.


Moderator’s note: Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti is a former publicity director and editor for David R. Godine, Publisher, has just been appointed as a senior editor at Cyrano’s Journal. She has worked at Conde Nast Publications, The Atlantic Monthly and others. She has been widely published and now writes for several publications including the famous Cleveland Blogcritics, Geek2Geek, Boston Globe Arts Section, and she has also written for Publisher’s Weekly, Independent Publisher and others. Visit her Web site.

Enjoy Sadi’s podcasts and others’ by pasting the TeleRead audio feed into your podware.

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  1. Since the Rev. Dodgson died in 1898, clearly all his published works are in the Public Domain in the U.S. and England (unless somehow his works were given a Crown Copyright).

    So if you secure original published printings/publications contemporary to his time (versus modern reissues), you may do anything you wish with their contents.

    Now if certain entities hold things like original drawings/photographs, they certainly may charge you a license to use them as source material, but it’s not a copyright issue per se (although if they are “unpublished” they may be covered under copyright.) Just because they may own the original print from which all the published versions are derived from, does not extend copyright ownership over the derivatives that have been published.

    I’d contact Greg Newby at Project Gutenberg who can give you a much more definitive answer on this (and correct where I’m wrong.) Juliet Sutherland at Distributed Proofreaders is another person to contact.

    Now certainly, you may be constrained by your institution or contracting organization to have to go through the gyrations to get copyright clearance, and that only show how insane copyright has become.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a Lawyer.)

  2. I have to agree with Jon above. The images and text published in 18998 would be in the public domain and you should be free to use them, but complications can arise.

    What Sadi described when dealing with agents sounds like the stock answer from permission departments and stock-houses when someone requests an image or text. Word count or a approximation of usage is how permission departments determine rates. I’m surprised that they didn’t ask about print runs.

    Two other comments:

    Dover generally publishes a large selection of work in the public domain, but they also publish work still in copyright.

    Are the color images photographs of the original illustrations? Because it could be that they’re selling you the right to the photograph of the illustration. Stockhouses sell images of places and images of public domain work and locations with a copyright on that photo. I’m sure if you took the photographs of the images from the books themselves, there’s no copyright issue, just an issue with the archives department on their policy of photography.
    (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but I have worked in Subsidiary Rights departments and libraries.)

  3. Sadi, to reiterate what I said in my first comment, any book published in the U.S. prior to 1923 is public domain in the U.S. and may also be public domain throughout the world (depending upon when the author died) — this includes both the text and any illustrations. This means you don’t have to ask permission from anyone to reproduce the book’s contents, including the illustrations.

    If you want something a little more authoritative, refer to Cornell’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

    Now, if you are not satisfied with the quality of reproduction of the illustrations in the book-in-hand, then you can certainly see if some entity possesses the original art work. In this case, you may have to license to use their art work since they own the hardcopy. They might even own the copyright to the originals (see the Cornell chart for unpublished works.) But such copyright claim does NOT extend to any illustration in the public domain printing. If they claim they own the copyright to any illustration in the pre-1923 printing because they own the original art work, refer them to the Cornell page and then tell them to go suck eggs.

    Of course, I am not a lawyer. As previously noted, if you’d like other opinions, contact either Greg Newby at Project Gutenberg or Juliet Sutherland at Distributed Proofreaders. Also refer to the book The Public Domain — How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More by Attorney Stephen Fishman, published by Nolo Press.

  4. Apparently Charles Dodgson was a distant relative of mine but I would have to ask my mother (again) exactly where my family line crossed his. And sadly we don’t have any of his works in the family so I can’t help you their either.

    The point I would like to make, that could help future authors, is that if the Rights Office system was in place every item of a work would be uniquely identified and registered and so it would be abundantly clear when the work pases into the public domain or who was the legal rights holder. Just one of the benefits of a system that would take copyright into the digital age.

    Good luck with the book.

  5. Entities far bigger (and with far deeper pockets) than Sadi and her publisher still license public domain works as a matter of fact, just in order to avoid being sued.

    Even if Sadi were willing to take that risk, anyone downstream (publisher, printer, distributor, reseller) may not, and may refuse to handle her work if she does not have licenses.

  6. thanks to all of you – this is extremely helpful information, and interesting about you being related to Dodgson. If you know the family estate, that may of great help here as well….

    What i have done is the following; for work that is *original* and owned by institutions, not by me, then i am paying them to photograph or scan the piece, but they are kindly not charging me any rate to use the piece in the finished book.

    So you see, they are charging me for the reproduction of the image (which seems fair enough) but not for the actual image itself (the rights to use it).

    The whole *word * thing is very confusing and yes, as you note, a standard stock answer. I think it would be far easier if i simply sent a list with page numbers stating explicitly what i plan to use. But NO. They don’t want that. So then this leaves the question, What do they want?

    I mean only to do well by the Estate with the utmost respect, of course and will and have, but the idea that i should have to pay for his own words seems rather absurd to me, since, as everyone has pointed out, if i understand, the copyright has ran out on those works a long time ago… it makes no sense to me. I should be able to use as much as i want. God in heaven, whole copies of Alice in Wonderland have been republished with new illustrations!

    Hardly what i am doing…

    this is a most helpful discussion

    sadi (ranson-polizzotti)

  7. i should not, the comment before mine that said “anyone downstream…” Yes, we agree. I already have a publisher in New York and London and am making certain that the rights are in order mostly for their sake and because i do not wish to ruin my own reputation as a Carroll scholar… so right, nobody downstream as you put it, will be hurt… that is key…


  8. Hi All,

    David, thanks for your wishes and the best to you for the new year.

    Sadi, As far as I know we have absolutely no contact with the Dogdson estate but as I said before I have to check with my mother because she is the one who tracks all the family history and contacts. If anything comes up I will get back to you.

  9. Dear Sadi,
    I would be interested to read your work on my namesake.

    My father used to tell me a story of his youth in the 1920s. He studied at Christchurch because of the family connection to the college. Dad wanted to follow his ancestor and make a name for himself in mathematics but had nothing original to say so went into medicine instead.

    Years ago I visited Oxford and was given the great honour of dining at Christchurch’s high table. This was a particular privilege because of the sense of validation in my relationship with my ancestor.

    I have lived my life with this association and I have never known exactly how to react to people’s views on Dodgson. On the one hand is the whimsy and delight of the Alice stories. But to others, there is a darkness about Dodgson’s subject matter for his photography. As an aside, there is precious little discussion of his significant contribution to mathematics.

    From my own research, Dodgson’s photographic techniques were groundbreaking and the appropriateness or otherwise of his subject matter is simply a matter of opinion.

    For what it is worth, Alice Liddell’s family seemed to have an opinion that it was not appropriate and thus succeeded in planting an element of innuendo into the interpretation of Dodgson’s behaviour. This seems more a reflection on Victorian morality rather than anything else.

    Good luck with your work.
    Charles Dodgson

  10. I am only interested in any Royalties or such to the Dodgson estate due to the multi-millions of dollars made off of Alice in Wonderland” “Through the looking glass” and others.
    It is a fact-however unfortunate-that genius is not recognized for a long time after a person like Mr. Dodgson passes on.
    It looks like most of his works are in the public domain and the estate will never see any Royalties or anything.

    • Yes, the estate got to make money on it while it was under copyright. Then it becomes the property of the public. That’s how copyright works, or is supposed to. That which first enriches the author monetarily then enriches everybody else culturally. It’s a good system. It’s only too bad the period of time before the public gets it has been becoming longer and longer.

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