clemens_1871_thumb[1] Mike Masnick at Techdirt has a post considering the possible copyright status of the new three-volume Mark Twain autobiography that is being published in its entirety and as Twain originally intended for the first time, a century after his death.

Masnick finds the overall copyright claim that the Mark Twain foundation puts on it to be misleading, because the portions of it that have never before been published, as well as the portions that were published before 1923 and any portions published between 1923 and 1963 on which copyright was not renewed, ought to be in the public domain. (I discussed the same issue back in May.)

That being said, he notes that the entire work is available to read on-line for free so it’s not as if the copyright is being used to deny people access to it. I find the format in which it’s posted not terribly easy to read (it’s in a portrait mode page confined to the middle of the window, which I can’t expand save by expanding the font size on the browser), but it’s still nice to have it available.

The University of California Press lists the first volume as an Adobe E-book for $28, which seems like rather a lot; Amazon lists a Kindle edition for $9.99. (Oddly, though the release date for the volume is supposed to be November 15th, Amazon seems to be shipping the book now.) Certainly a 760-page volume for $9.99 gives you a lot for the money.


  1. Copyright notices in books need to be general because no one really knows what direction the law is likely to take after a book is published. That’s why the activation date is given but not the expiration date. The former is known. The latter isn’t.

    The same is true of the content covered. In almost any non-fiction book, some of the content is in the public domain for one reason or another. I’ve read thousands of books, but I’ve yet to read one whose copyright notice was so pedantic it listed in detail what the copyright did not cover. Why? In part because that sort of list would be distracting and involve an unnecessary expense consulting with lawyers. And in part because the law can change, either by legislation or court decision.

    There was a period, for instance, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when, due to a controversial court decision (as usual, in the Second Circuit) there was virtually no fair use for an author’s unpublished material. Even brief quotes required permission. That played so much havoc with the writing of biographies, that Congress amended copyright law about 1992 to make it clear that fair use did apply to unpublished material. What was protected by copyright in 1990 was no longer protected in 1994. The law changes.

    The details do matter when you apply for a formal copyright since that is coming at a fixed point in time. In your application, the copyright office expects you to specify what is not covered.

    Also, in situations where you apply for permission to quote, the copyright manager will often tell you where permission is not needed. Outside the dreadful, amoral. greed-driven world of television and movies (aka Hollywood), copyright holders tend to be conservative. They’d rather not claim a copyright on something (thus not making a few dollars) than face the possibility of spending $100,000 or more defending a debatable claim in court.

    So there’s nothing ‘misleading’ about having a generalized copyright claim at the front of a book. That’s simply how things are done.

    Those who want to find out what is copyrighted are simply going to have to do a little work themselves rather than whine about the publisher. And much of that work isn’t that hard. If you want to quote material from Twain’s biography that’s in the public domain because it was published before 1923, all you have to do is quote from a pre-1923 edition. That’s what I typically do when I want to make extensive quotes or republish a book. I not only find a pre-1923 book, I find a copy actually printed before 1923.

  2. Michael Perry seems to miss the point entirely. Yes, copyrights are complicated, and yes, copyright law can change. However, at no point has a work in the public domain become copyrighted after that. Once a copyright has expired, it doesn’t come back.

    Mark Twain’s autobiography is being published in its entirety for the first time, 100 years after the death of the author. Unpublished works are only eligible for copyright for 70 years after the death of the author. There are some passages that have been published previously, but the vast majority of the work is previously unpublished. Nobody is talking about finding the scraps that were published before 1923 and therefore public domain, but the body of the work itself. No need to go to a major university library that has good collections of pre-1923 editions to quote, because this is the first publication of the work. (I also wonder what his advice is to people who don’t live near a library of that magnitude…)

    So yes, the publisher putting “Copyright 2010” on a previously unpublished work by an author who has been dead for more than 70 years is very misleading. The introduction, annotation, appendices, index and anything else they did themselves is copyright 2010. The previously published material falls under appropriate copyright law. The bulk of the work should be available to Project Gutenberg, however.

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