Respect the Work: Honor the Author with an Authentic Reproduction of Their Work

This is the third in a series of posts about republishing works in the public domain. In the first post, “Respect the Work: Republishing Public Domain Works,” I described aspects of the process of republishing works in the public domain. In “Respect the Work: Shortcuts Used to Republish Public Domain Works” I described steps in the process in more detail, and in particular shortcuts taken by some publishers that result in such a poor quality book that it reflects disrespect on the author of the original creative work. This post addresses what can be done by publishers — and readers — to encourage republication of editions of works in the public domain that honor the author of the original creative work.

Ensure that the work is in the public domain.

The first step in making a public domain work available by republication is to ensure that it is in fact in the public domain, and not still protected by copyright. Even if the author is long dead, the copyright protections on the author’s work may be in place. Copyright law is complex, and protections afforded to a creative work vary depending on when (or if) it was published, when (or if) it was registered, where it may have been copyrighted, and when or whether an existing copyright on the work has been renewed.

There are resources available that provide guidance on what may be expected for determining copyright status. The U.S. Copyright Office is a good place to start, with definitive data sources and helpful reference materials. Cornell University has an in-house Copyright Information Center whose webpage includes valuable resources, including a summary table, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States” that describes many of the dates and conditions that affect whether or not a work is in the public domain. In addition to determining whether the original work was copyrighted at the time of publication, it is necessary to determine whether an existing copyright has been renewed. Stanford University maintains a database of copyright renewals, and makes it publicly available.  Querying Project Gutenberg can be helpful – if there is an undifferentiated edition of the work available on Gutenberg, it is likely that the work is in the public domain.

Even when a publisher is committed to due diligence, it can be difficult to determine the status of a given piece of work. For example, many of the compilations of the work of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables discussed in the prior posts, include the story Anne of Windy PoplarsAnne of Windy Poplars was originally published in Canada in 1936. By Canadian law,

Copyright in a work exists for the life of the author/creator, the remainder of the calendar year in which he is deceased, plus fifty years after the end of that calendar year.

Montgomery passed away in 1942, so her works passed into public domain in 1993 — in Canada. Her stories were also copyrighted in the United States. The U.S. copyright was registered for Anne of Windy Poplars in 1936, and renewed in 1963. This presents an unusual situation in which the story is available in the public domain in Canada and elsewhere (e.g. Australia), but is (apparently) protected by copyright in the United States. The situation is further complicated by the availability of editions online. Copyright restrictions for electronic media apply at the location where the electronic version resides, that is, at the geographic location of the specific network server. The disposition of copyright protection on electronic versions makes for peculiar circumstances. Anne of Windy Poplars is available at Gutenberg Australia, where it has been determined to be in the public domain; it is not available at Project Gutenberg in the United States. Furthermore, the Gutenberg Australia version is accompanied by this warning:

Warning! Restricted Access!

The title you have selected (Anne of Windy Poplars) is a post-1922 publication by an author who died more than 50 years ago. Such titles are in the public domain in many countries, particularly those outside the US and Europe. However, this title most likely remains copyrighted under United States law, where works copyrighted in 1923 or later can remain under copyright for up to 95 years after publication. It may also be copyrighted in European Union countries and other countries where copyrights can last longer than 50 years past the author’s death. (Europe, for instance, uses a life plus 70 years term.) Follow this link for more details on copyright laws of various countries. Below, we provide author death dates and other edition information, so that you can check this information against the terms of your country’s copyright law.

Do NOT download or read this book online if you or your system are in the United States, or in another country where copyrights for authors with the dates shown below have not expired. The author’s estate and publishers still retain rights to control distribution and use of the work in those countries.

As a small, aspiring American publisher, I would not publish Anne of Windy Poplars under my imprint, either by itself or in compilation. I would also avoid making a copy available for Kindle, as Amazon Kindle servers fall under US copyright.

Determining whether the author (or their estate) still holds copyright on an original work is the first step in honoring the original creator of the work.

Provide a quality rendering of the work.

The second step in honoring the author of an original creative work is to provide a quality rendering of the work. As discussed in the post, “Respect the Work: Shortcuts Used to Republish Public Domain Works,” publishers sometimes choose to provide a “book” which is simply a bound compilation of page images scanned from a hard copy of the original work. There are books for which this might be appropriate – collections of fine art, or perhaps hand-penned works that will not render well by optical character recognition (OCR) programs and whose calligraphy is as much a part of the artistry as the text itself. For most volumes, however, building a book from page images makes for a poor quality “book”. Surprisingly, in some cases, these compilations of page images are offered at a price that well exceeds what a traditionally formatted book would cost. A publisher who expects to profit by making someone else’s creative work available for sale should make it available in a format that is worthy of the price.

Reproduce the work accurately and completely.

The third step in honoring an author by republishing their work is to reproduce it accurately and completely. As detailed in the post, “Respect the Work: Shortcuts Used to Republish Public Domain Works,” publishers commonly use OCR on scanned images of original work without proofreading or thoroughly editing the resulting text. This method can result in lost text, introduces errors into the reproduction, and does not reflect well on the original author — or the publisher.  Recapturing the text purely for the sake of preserving the work may justify expedient methods; recapturing the text with the intent to profit from sale of the work should be undertaken with regard for an accurate and complete reproduction of the book.

Ensure your reproduction does not detract from the original work.

In the original post of this series, Respect the Work: Republishing Public Domain Works, I described a particularly bad choice for cover illustration for a republication of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. As Montgomery presented her, the character, Anne Shirley, was a sweet and innocent young girl with decidedly red hair. The choice of a blond and sexualized model for the cover made it obvious that the publisher was unfamiliar with the work that they sought to republish. The reaction in comments on from readers familiar with the beloved character was swift and fierce, and resulted in CreateSpace making the publication “Temporarily out of stock”. Publishers who seek to profit from republication of the creative work of someone else should ensure that their editorial choices do not detract from the original work. As the Anne of Green Gables example illustrates, such choices demonstrate lack of respect for the author and her characters, and can result in damage to the reputation – and sales – of the publisher.

Use technology to make the work more accessible than it would otherwise be.

An accurate reproduction of a historic creative work should take into account the period in which it was first made available, as well as the era in which the work is set. This consideration extends to choice of fonts, especially when the text has been captured by a technique that permits choice of font.

Anne-of-Green-Gables-Serif-or-Sans-SAs noted in the previous post, “Respect the Work: Shortcuts Used to Republish Public Domain Works,” text which has been captured and processed by OCR can be displayed in fonts other than what was used originally, either by the publisher, or in some cases by the individual using their electronic reading device.  Choice of fonts affects readers in different ways. For example, the snip to the right shows the first few lines of Anne of Green Gables, the top one from Project Gutenberg and the bottom one from Forgotten Books. The typeface in the top snip has a modest serif; the typeface in the bottom snip is sans serif. Offering a book originally published in 1908 in a sans serif font seems inconsistent with the standards of the period, and may be unappealing to some readers from an aesthetic perspective. However, sans serif typeface may be easier to read for some people, particularly those are visually impaired or who are dyslexic. In this case, having the ability for the publisher or the reader to present the text in the font which works best for them – from either a practical or aesthetic perspective –  makes the work more accessible than it would have been in original form.

Provide context that supports the original work.

A particular advantage of being able to republish an original creative work is having the ability to enrich the work with information that would not have been available to the author at the time the book was written. A publisher can add historical context that gives modern readers a better appreciation for the events and attitudes of the era in which the book is set, and in which the author wrote.  A story can be annotated with biographical information of the author subsequent to the publication of the work, including the effect of the author’s work on events to come. Reference materials can be added, providing links, both literally and figuratively, between the creative work and its larger context.

Support publishers that show respect for original authors.

Each of the recommendations above pertain to prospective publishers looking to republish public domain works. As readers, there are four things we can do to honor authors of original creative works.

First, let the publisher know when they have made available a republished edition of a creative work that does not honor the original author.  For example, Amazon is committed to a positive reading experience; they encourage readers to identify poor products so that they can inform the publisher of a need to improve. They can and do remove the offending edition from sale, as they did in the case of Anne of Green Gables. In order to take action on poor quality books, the publisher needs to know that readers care.

Second, readers can choose not to buy “books” made up of poor quality images of book pages or books whose text reflects poor editing. If readers buy poor quality republications, publishers have no incentive to invest in providing higher quality editions. For well-known books in the public domain, there may be multiple choices available for purchase; readers can review the options, “Click to Look Inside!’ to see the quality of reproduction used by the publisher, look for annotations or other additional context, and choose to buy an edition that offers an appropriate balance of quality reproduction and cost. If a quality edition is not available, rather than paying a publisher for a poor quality reproduction, readers can evaluate options at sites like Project Gutenberg, who use volunteers to digitize and proofread their collection of public domain works.

Third, while it can be as difficult for a reader to determine copyright status as it is for a publisher – or harder – readers can avoid buying books from publishers who have not carried out due diligence and are offering copyrighted works for sale as if they are in the public domain. The discussion in this series of posts has for the most part assumed that publishers were acting in good faith, looking to take advantage of works no longer protected by copyright. But the same methods described in these posts to generate new editions of existing works are used by pirates, people who seek to profit from reproduction and distribution of the work of others, irrespective of its copyright status. Or if these groups and individuals are not seeking to make a profit at the expense of the author, at a minimum they disregard the rights of original authors in making books available on sites that provide pirated books, music, videos and other copyrighted materials. As with poor quality editions, rather than obtaining a book from an illegal pirate site, or a copy of a book distributed illegally in violation of copyright, readers can often obtain books legally at a site like Project Gutenberg. At Project Gutenberg, out-of-copyright books are being preserved and distributed while protecting legal rights of authors of copyrighted material through exercise of due diligence.

Fourth and finally, readers can honor the authors of original works by buying from publishers who invest in  quality preparation and presentation of works they make available by republication. Let publishers know that it is worth their investment to produce quality publications that reflect appreciation and respect for the creator of the original work.

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