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.
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