The Truth, for Free

The Book of Common Prayer, reaching back to my Anglican days, is and always has been in the public domain.  Although the poetic language and culturally relevant phrases could by charged for use, they’re not.  The idea seems right-headed to me.  Although the Church of England, like many other religious bodies, has its own specific theology and approach to things, which it believes is right, as opposed to all other belief systems, it shows its conviction in making its sacred text free.  Copyright exists to protect intellectual property.  If an individual or an institution, or a company, creates something, copyright assures them that nobody else can monetize it without the creator’s permission, and often such permission involves a royalty.  The C of E has foregone that.  Print away!

I tarried many years among the Episcopalians before it became clear to me that I wasn’t exactly the kind of saint they were looking for.  I’ve had to move on, but I very deeply appreciate the integrity of an institution that says, “I made this, but you can have it.  I really believe in it.”  If you’ve decided to print and sell religious books, however, beware the Bible.  Most of the common translations in circulation (apart from the good old King James) are covered by copyright.  Unlike the Church of England, the bodies that sponsor Bible translations expect to be paid for the use of said translation.  This is, in part, a business decision.  They have valuable property—for many the keys of salvation itself—and if you want it you should be willing to pay for it.

This contrast has often struck me as very odd.  How capitalist religion has become!  In what do Bible translating bodies really believe?  Believe me, I know that any large publishing effort requires a lot of work.  Resources.  Still, those who do the translating generally have church or university jobs.  They’ve already got a steady stream of income, no?  And yet they will expect to be paid their billed hours for bringing the truth to the world.  I’m not a good investment thinker.  Money doesn’t really motivate me.  This is one of the reasons I have tried several times to find acceptance as a clergy person.  My values seem out of sync with the rest of the world.  I even bothered to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written, the better to read, mark, and inwardly digest them.  Still, I wonder if those who truly believe would not feel more authentic giving away all they have in order to attain the kingdom of Heaven.

Cover Copy

If you’ve ever wondered why the same images appear on book covers over and over, there’s a fairly simple explanation.  (I should specify, by the way, that I mean academic press books.  The pockets of trade publishers are apparently bottomless.)  For many in the humanities the choices come to the same set of classical paintings that are out of copyright.  Now, in a capitalist system, copyright is a necessary idea.  It protects those who create intellectual property from being taken advantage of.  Their work is treated like a physical object, so an accurate image of a painting is the same as the painting itself.  But if you’ve ever been to an art gallery you know that’s not exactly true.  Art galleries show us that being in the presence of the real thing is different than seeing a reproduction.  But I digress.

Books are not only recognized by their covers, but sold by them.  It’s a strange industry and part of the reason why goes back to one of those eye-glazing-over court cases involving (yawn) taxes.  In 1979 the Supreme Court ruled that companies could no longer devalue old stock for tax purposes.  This was the Thor Power Tool Company v Commissioner case.  The court ruled old stock had to be assessed at value.  While this was about manufacturing, it deeply impacted books.  Publishers now had to destroy old stock (and books are printed in quantity) or face heavy tax consequences.  This led to books being pulped much more quickly than usual (they could then be written off as losses) and directly impacted the book cover.

Despite the old adage, every publisher knows people do judge books by their covers.  Since 1979, extra care has been given to covers to make books sell quickly, and in significant numbers.  Now granted, your nuts and bolts will still be useful in future power tools, but books sell differently.  A typical book has a three-year lifespan.  Sure, there will be those (like yours truly) who’ll buy a book that’s been out for a while, but most books are considered dead after year three.  That old stock is a liability and pulping is common.  It seems an inglorious end for such a noble product.  Not to mention wasteful.  Academic books have similar covers because copyright images are often too expensive to license for covers.  Constantly publishers have to guess as best they can how many copies will sell because old stock is too expensive too keep.  Print on demand has changed a lot of things as well, but that’s a different story.   Covers still do count.

Buying Copyright

It our current capitalist, individualist world, copyright is a good thing.  It’s often misunderstood, even by those who hold it.  It can also lead to confusion.  Basically, anything you create is covered by copyright.  This applies to written work, artistic pieces, photography, music, and so forth.  Even the words on this blog are covered by copyright, although it’s difficult to enforce on the internet.  If someone wants to use a work covered by copyright, they have to have permission from the rights holder.  You can sell copyright.  That’s essentially what authors do when they publish books.  They sell copyright for the promotion and, if they’re lucky, royalties the publisher provides.  Once money’s involved, everything changes.  After publishers, say, have the rights they can do anything with them, if it’s specified in their contract.  They can sell them again, or sublicense them.  (This is going somewhere, I promise.)

Different countries have different copyright rules and so sometimes a book is available in one country and not another.  Now Amazon, and some used book sites such as Bookfinder, have made used copies available.  Used copies can get around national restrictions.  I remember wanting a certain Hebrew grammar that was only available in hardcover in the US, and very expensive.  When we moved to the UK, it was available cheaply in paperback.  That’s just one example of how it’s intended to work.  Here’s the twist: the same book can be sold under different titles (even in the same language) if published in different countries.  It’s possible to mistakenly think that they’re different books and buy them twice.  Publishers don’t mind that at all.

Even in the same country, publishers can give the same content different titles by releasing a hardcover version first and later publishing a paperback with a different name.  Sometimes it’s difficult even for someone who works in the publishing industry to know if that’s happening.  Copyright is meant to protect the creator.  For the buyer it’s caveat emptor.  There are times when it’s convenient to have two of the same book.  Like libraries, however, houses also have limited physical space.  And the owners limited budgets.  Publishers need to make money, I realize.  Hardcovers, being more durable, cost more than paperbacks.  And overseas sellers face different markets so sometimes have to give the same book different titles.  In this interconnected world, the buyer must beware—capitalism encourages spending and copyright can be most protean.  Especially when money’s on the line.

Horror Show

The horror film history narrative runs something like this: although there had been some scary movies in the silent era, the term “horror” was first used to describe Universal’s 1931 release of Dracula and Frankenstein.  Some other studios got in on the action and creature features were a staple of US cinema until the fifties when they began to peter out.  By that point a UK horror industry took off, largely due to Hammer Studios.  While these Hammer offerings often remade the standard creature features, they also branched out into less commonly explored areas such as films set in contemporary times focused on the occult.  This phase faded in the sixties just as “modern horror” was taking off with classics like The Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby.  Modern horror quickly grew.  Further divisions can of course be made, and the modern period has gone through several transformations as well.  It’s a rich coffer.

There’s a real problem with this, however, for those who might’ve missed a decade or two somewhere in there.  Many of the UK films are still not available in the US for anything like a fair price.  Part of the reason for this is copyright law, but another is apparently the ignoring of demand.  I saw maybe one Hammer film (on TV) growing up.  Saturday afternoon fair was more often American B movies like Zontar the Thing from Venus.  I’ve got a hankering to watch some of those Hammer films, but even in the 2020s they’re difficult to find.  Even with the internet.  Often the DVDs are (because of differing copyright laws) coded so they can’t be viewed in North America.  You can buy a player to see them, but when you think of the inevitability of streaming it hardly seems worth the cost.

Streaming might be the solution, but much of the Hammer oeuvre doesn’t stream in the US, at least not that I’ve found.  If I’m wrong please let me know in the comments!  You see, I spend time reading about horror and when you do this recommendations often arise.  Some Hammer classics are as expensive as the academic books that discuss them.  Is it possible to be a horror connoisseur?   And can you truly be a connoisseur without sampling what’s on offer overseas?  We tend to forget that the world is culturally divided by copyright laws.  If nobody’s watching the movie anymore what’s the harm in making it free?  If people do want to see it, why not sell it to them at industry standard price?  Even trying to watch horror, it seems, has become a horror show.

Photo by Michael Mouritz on Unsplash

Werewolves Not Forgotten

Copyright is a strange thing.  Without it there would be no making a living as a writer or artist or even music composer (or so I’m told).  The idea is straightforward enough—someone comes up with a “marketable” idea (how marketable varies widely), and therefore owns the exclusive rights to the expressed form of that idea.  If, for instance, the idea becomes a published book the publisher (generally) owns the rights and pays the writer royalties for the use/ownership of those rights.  Copyright, however, like fresh food, expires.  Written work or music or art becomes part of the public domain and can be reproduced by any with the gumption to do so.  There are publishers, such as Gorgias Press, that got their earlier starts by doing just that—finding public domain material, scanning it, and republishing it for a price.  All above board.

Back before I worked long in publishing I was going through a werewolf phase.  No, I am not a lycanthrope, but I was reading about werewolves.  I knew one of the main sources of folklore was Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves.  Being strapped for cash (some things never change), I bought a copy published by Forgotten Books.  They’re rather prevalent on Amazon.  Although the content is free online, some of us prefer to have a book in our hands and leave the devices aside.  I soon discovered why my Forgotten Books version was so inexpensive.  It is simply a printout of the scanned book, apparently with optical letter recognition software utilized.  No serious formatting or proofreading required, a book is produced, covered, and sold.  It is a disorienting experience reading such a book.

Readers look for landmarks just as surely as a hiker or traveler of any sort.  Old books have layout and typesetting to help the reader navigate.  My copy has “Error! Bookmark Not Defined” instead of notes.  First editions of Baring-Gould, it turns out, sell for upwards of $6000.  So I continued reading.  A lack of italics and the occasional optically misread word make me wonder just how much of Baring-Gould I’m really ingesting.  Any book that begins with a disclaimer regarding possible errors should’ve been assigned a copyeditor.  SBG likes to use lots of foreign words.  They may be spelled correctly or not.  I have no notes to check.  Caveat emptor, n’est-ce pas?  The technology that allows scanned, unread by human eyes products to be sold as books makes me wonder.  No, I haven’t forgotten books.

Wolves? Where?

One of the oldest tricks in the capitalistic playbook is to make something look like a more successful product.  Trademarks and copyright laws prevent too close a similarity—for money is sacred—but we all know “brands” that try to look like other brands in hopes of picking up some of the business that attends success.  The same feature was apparently at operation behind The Dark Dominion: Eight Terrifying Tales of Vampires and Werewolves.  This is a book that I picked up in a used bookstore because its cover design—a dull olive green with a picture oval on the front—was clearly based on the Dark Shadows book series.  While the latter are still available, they’re increasingly difficult to find in used bookstores, so when I come across one I don’t have I tend to buy it.  I knew this wasn’t part of the series but the cover suggested to me it might be similar enough, like store-brand breakfast cereal.

Werewolf stories, it turns out, shouldn’t hunt in packs.  There’s no surprise since it’s pretty clear that one of the characters is a shapeshifter and it’s pretty obvious which one.  Six, or maybe seven, of the eight stories concern werewolves while one outlier has a vampire menace.  Some of the stories in the book are clever, but most follow the same trajectory: attacks are made, the villagers suspect something, one of them turns out to be a werewolf.  Time for the next story.  I noticed a long time ago that unlike vampires and Frankenstein’s monster, the werewolf doesn’t have the definitive novelistic origin.  Others wrote vampire tales before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that telling set the stage for those that followed.  The olive green cover suggests Barnabas Collins, but in reality is more in Quentin’s territory.

Interestingly, The Dark Dominion, like occasional collections before and after, doesn’t list an editor.  Modern books use the stature of volume editors to reinforce that what’s contained within has quality.  Otherwise who knows whether someone with good taste has picked the stories by authors you’ve never heard of and wrapped them together in a package meant to move?  That’s not to say that some of the stories aren’t good.  A couple are quite clever.  One is a translation of a medieval German tract.  Another comes from medieval Ireland.  The remainder are stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Perhaps it’s the burden of an editor to wonder what the selection criteria might have been.  What’s entirely obvious, however, is that making something look similar to a recognized book series still has the power to sell.

Wag the Book

I was pulling together a bibliography, you know, like one does, when I realized just how outdated the usual formats are.  Particularly the trinity invoked at the end of Chicago/Turabian—city: publisher, date.  Now, to their credit a number of more recent formats have dispensed with the “city” part.  Most presses have multiple offices and even those of us in the biz can’t always tell which one produced the book, which was, in all probability, printed elsewhere anyway.  Why list the city?  In this internet age, no physical copy of the book may have even been in the office.  The real problem, however, is the date.  Scholars want to know when something was published.  Publishers want to prolong the copyright (seventy years after an author’s death apparently isn’t long enough).  They can do this by using the next year as the copyright, as long as a book’s published in the latter half of the year.

Maybe you’ve had this happen too.  You put a book in your bibliography which, at the time, has a date a year later than it is in real-time.  You’re writing the future, apparently.  Or maybe publishers are just optimistic.  The fact is it’s a fiction.  Citations were invented so that you could find where an idea originated.  Dates can be important for a book that’s gone into multiple editions and you want to be sure to look in the correct one.  I had any illusions about permanency shattered when I realized that publishers routinely fix errors in books with no indication that they’ve done so.  It used to be that, if you knew how to read the printer’s key on the copyright page you could even figure out which printing of a book you held.  All of this fun disappears when we go electronic.

This sense of temporariness is problematic.  People ask me “Why don’t you get a Kindle?”  Books are an investment.  Consider iTunes.  How many times have you had to “rebuy” a song because you changed devices?  Or has your battery died right in the middle of something?  Have you tried to sell an MP3 you no longer listen to in a yard sale?  Books are physical objects—more than the words they contain.  They may be dated before they’re published, but they do have staying power.  Besides, citing an electronic source, what with broken links and all, is a tenuous business.  Those who write books want some indication that what they labor over for so long has a real presence in the world.  Even if you can’t say, precisely, when or where it was published.

Green Eyes

All of us fall prey to the green-eyed monster once in a while.  For an editor like me, it starts lurking when I see others make content production look so easy by taking copyrighted material from elsewhere.  I’ve read books—often self published—that take great swaths of material under copyright and reuse it with no permissions acknowledged.  You can build big books that way.  Quickly.  And there are websites that use  crisp, clean images that look more immaculate that any kitchen counter.  Often those images, however, come from sources “protected” by copyright.  With a web this large, who’s going to find them?  They’re not making money off them (usually) so what’s the harm?  My jealousy, I suppose, comes from working in publishing where copyright is a daily concern.  It’s the currency in which we peddle.

Copyright isn’t intended to make websites like this one look lackluster.  No, it’s intended to protect the intellectual property, or visual or auditory inspiration, or the creator.  It’s a remarkable idea, really.  If I have an idea, it’s mine.  Once I express it in written, aural, or visual form, it is covered by copyright.  (We haven’t figured out a way to regulate original smells and tastes yet, beyond protecting their recipes.)  Putatively copyright is to protect the creator’s rights.  In fact, it tends to impact the publisher more.  This week at work I had to spend some time, once again, reviewing copyright law.  One thing most authors don’t comprehend is that a book contract is a negotiation for trading rights for royalties—turning ideas into money.  Even intangibles can be purchased.  Intellectual property can have a fence around it.  And a dog or two in the yard.

I try not to violate copyright.  When I want to borrow my old published ideas in new venues, I rewrite them.  When I want to use somebody else’s pictures on this blog I take them from public domain or fair use sources (thank you Wikimedia Commons!).  A great number of them are my own that  I cast upon the web, hoping they will come back to me in time of need.  With the exception of one guest post many years back, all the words on this blog (approaching a million-and-a-half, at this point) have made their way from my addled brain through my trembling fingers and onto the internet.  Maybe I just want to protect my babies.  Maybe some would call it jealousy.  I like to think of it as a mother bear and her cubs.  Or perhaps the spawn of a green-eyed monster.

Epigraphic Ephemera

Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” ― Oscar Wilde

In certain kinds of books, epigraphs are popular.  In fact, I’m currently reading a book where every part of every chapter begins and ends with an epigram.  It starts to taste like an epigram cracker after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, every great once in a while there’s a quote that just illustrates your point in a chapter so pithily that you can’t resist.   Still, epigraphs ought to come with a warning label.  Working in publishing one of the first things I learned is that unlike quotes in the body of a text, an epigraph that’s covered by copyright isn’t considered “fair use.”  It’s an ornament, an embellishment.  If you want to use one, you need to get permission from the rights holder.  (Unless it’s in the public domain.)

While the idea of copyright itself isn’t that complicated—the creator of intellectual property is the owner of said property—copyright laws can be complex.  Publishers discourage the use of epigraphs (which only academics seem to use any more) because of permissions complications.  You see, when you publish a book (or article) you’re trading your copyright for whatever emoluments the publisher or the journal has to offer.  Most publishers, no matter how noble, are businesses.  There are costs with producing books.  If someone wants to reuse part of a another book—apart from the standard academic quote—they must have permission to do so.  Epigraph permissions can really slow a book down.  And make it expensive.

Reading is an involved process.  We human beings are seldom given such direct access to the interior lives of others.  Think about it—books are private thoughts made public.  Sometimes writers like to show that others have been thinking along similar lines, especially if what they have to say challenges convention.  Thus the epigraph.  The quotable quote.  But did you have permission to take that?  I like poetry.  It takes longer to read than prose, but it says so much in so few words.  That means using poetry in epigraphs becomes a nightmare.  Rights holders often charge by the percentage of the poem used.  And once a book becomes e book there no stopping the spread of its epigraphs used so carefully by permission.  Indeed, e-books are easily pirated, increasing the concerns of those who sell other’s thoughts for a living.  Before sticking that clever quote at the start of your chapter, it’s worth pondering the epigraph above (in the public domain, of course).

The Labyrinth of Copyright

Here’s another post originating from my daily work as an editor. (As an editor you tend to assume nobody’s really interested in what you do all day, but I’ve been told this isn’t so.) What is copyright? And do I have it? First of all, a caveat: I’m not a lawyer. Copyright is complex and, to answer my second question first, yes, you do have it! So what is copyright? Essentially it’s the protection of intellectual property. As long as that property remains in your head, it’s yours alone. Once it’s expressed in writing, art of any kind, music, or even as a chart, it is automatically covered by copyright. If you want to use something someone else wrote, or produced, in your book, you need permission. Small quotes are generally considered fair use, but don’t push that doctrine too far! Fair use is listed as just that, a doctrine.

What many authors don’t realize is that your book contract is an exchange—you’re selling your copyright to the publisher for their services (they publish your book, promote it, register the copyright (it already has copyright, but registering helps to protect it legally), and handle the financial aspects of selling your book). You can’t publish your own work again without permission of the publisher. Sometimes I’ve had people ask me to use my artwork (from my own published articles) in their work. I don’t mind, of course, but I don’t own the copyright! If I published my work, the publisher has taken that copyright and I remain simply the author. If I want to publish my own published work somewhere else, I have to ask permission. Copyright, however, doesn’t last forever.

The only safe date before which material can be used without fear of infringement is 1922. Works published before then are in the public domain. Right now new works (such as this blog) are covered by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 more years. After that, unless the law changes, you don’t need permission to reuse these idiosyncratic musings. Not that that’s ever been an issue. I’m not a litigious person, but I do like to be cited. (Who doesn’t?) In any case, if you’re working on an academic piece, and you want to reuse somebody’s drawing, or an extended piece of writing, or even a tiny bit of a poem, you must have permission to do so. That’s what copyright does for you. The “fair use doctrine,” like most doctrines, doesn’t hold up well in court. If in doubt, just ask. Before you do, though, you might want to consult a copyright lawyer, just in case.

All opinions my own.