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Pride, Prejudice, and Copyright: How Books Reach Public Domain

Pride, Prejudice, and Copyright: How Books Reach Public Domain
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Palina Dolia

One might drop by a bookstore in search of timeless classics, and find… something dubious. "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"? "New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in Russia"? At first glance, such books are a crime against literature, morality and human taste, but slow down – everything is done within the limits of the law. All books that have become classics are in the public domain, which means they are open to new interpretations. But how do writings get this status? And what happens after? We will try to answer these questions in as much detail as possible, and will understand the public domain inside out.

Imagine the situation: you wrote a book. Of course, it sells well (you're probably a good writer), and for every copy you get your little royalties. As the direct creator of the work, you retain all copyrights to it and are free to do whatever you want with them. However, nobody lives forever. After your death, the rights to this (certainly brilliant) book will be probably passed on to your children. And then? Grandchildren, great-grandchildren? Will it be inherited over and over again like a relay baton?

If this were the case, we would never get open access to the multitude of works that are considered timeless classics. You would even have to pay for the publication of works in school literature textbooks. After all, there are many descendants of famous authors, their number is growing with each generation, and everyone is holding pieces of paper claiming their direct copyright protection… The horror!

Fortunately, it’s different in real life. Copyright for a book is not permanent and will expire over time. When this happens, the book becomes available to the public and can be published in the open access completely free of charge without any problems. Now anyone can read or publish it. And – reimagine it! Yes, yes, this is what's behind the endless sequels of Sherlock Holmes, which have nothing to do with Arthur Conan Doyle, and other reinterpretations of finished writings. After a book reaches the public domain, you can safely use not only its plot, but also characters and whole pieces of text in your creative pursuits. Everything is absolutely legal.

Yes, but here's the thing. After a book enters the public domain, you can alter it in any way and take it away for plot parts, but at the same time do not forget about inalienable copyright – that is, the right to be called the author of the work, use the work under your own name, etc. That is, if you have written an incredible story about Tom Sawyer fighting vampires, you should not thump your chest and claim that you invented this character yourself.

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So… When do books become part of the public domain?

Here begins a complex, confusing and very individual story for each country – after all, there is simply no general deadline for the transition to the public domain. Fat chance somebody's going to negotiate copyright with the whole world. Actually, this caused a whole bunch of confusion.

In most Western European countries, copyright used to be in effect 50 years after writer’s death, after which the book became public. But even here, there were some exceptions! In Germany, this period was as much as 70 years. All would be fine, but the European Union happened, which, of course, prompted the countries to bring the copyright legislation into compliance. And here the newly made allies faced an insurmountable obstacle: German stubbornness. Germany only fiercely kept silent at pleas to lower its standards to 50 years. There was no compromise, so the copyright term was extended to 70 years in all EU countries. The books, which at that time had already become public domain under the old legislation, returned to the status of "inaccessible and protected", and the publishers who had prepared them for publication cried their eyes out.

However, even according to this law, common to all in the European Union, an exception can be made. For example, if you are French and your death certificate states that you "died for France." Then the work goes into the public domain a hundred years after publication – for example, this is how the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery are protected.

In Russia, by the way, the term of copyright protection is also 70 years. True, if the author worked on his books during the Second World War or even participated in it, this term is extended by 4 years. And if a writer was repressed and rehabilitated posthumously, his copyright begins to be protected not from the year of death, but directly from the rehabilitation date.

Getting into the US Copyright dancing frenzy. Well, at first (and for quite a long time), your right to a book, film and other works had to be… confirmed. In 28 years, yeah. Failed to do so? That's it, now it's public domain, no royalties to you. True, this rule applied to works created in the period from 1923 to 1964.

You might have a question: what about the books written before that time? It's simple: works published (remember this word) before 1923 are in the public domain – all without exception and regardless of when the author died. But here, too, there is a nuance: if the work was not published and was gathering dust in the drawer of the writer's desk for many years, then copyright is protected at least throughout the life of the creator of the work – plus another 70 years after his death.

Are you confused already? The average term of copyright protection in the United States is 95 years after the author’s death. Recently, a reader of the National Library asked us a curious question: why did one of the old articles indicate that Margaret Mitchell's book "Gone with the Wind" became public domain? After all, she died in 1949, it's a bit too early. And this question brings us to a very controversial aspect of the public domain.

As you may have noticed, the terms of copyright protection differ in different countries – in Belarus it is just 50 years since the author’s death. That is, the same work may be in the public domain in the European Union, but still protected under US copyright law. Thus, the aforementioned book "Gone with the Wind" is available to anyone practically all over the world, except for the United States – after all, 70 years have passed since the author's death, not 95. It's time to creatively reimagine the timeless classics – to add some werewolves, aliens and other unusual elements to the American South.

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By the way, about reimagining

The transfer of a book into the public domain gives free rein to not only publishers who no longer need to pay royalties, but also writers who... also do not need to pay anything. And it is much easier to dismiss accusations of plagiarism and desecration of the classics.

In 2009, the reimagining of the classics received a new round – Seth Graham-Smith and his book "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" entered the literary arena. What was the original novel about? Forget it: now this is a story about how hordes of the living dead are besieging London, and the Bennet sisters, armed with guns and military honour, stand up to defend the city, while simultaneously trying to successfully marry, as every Victorian young lady should. At the same time, the text is still almost entirely composed of the original work of Jane Austen – albeit reshaped and generously seasoned with zombie apocalypse. And it is... fun. The book is more than comical; this is how it was intended. Ardent fans of Jane Austen's talent may be offended by this to the core, but less critical readers may like this strange symbiosis of Victorian classics and modern fiction with horror elements. Incompatible things are intertwined on the pages of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", to form an easy reading for the evening, which is unlikely to change your life, but it's clearly entertaining. Actually, like many other works of the mashup genre – integration of classical pieces with fantastic elements – are. “Android Karenina” by Ben Winters? Funny. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim"? Yes, please. "Timur and his Team and Vampires" by Tatiana Koroleva? Admit it, you're intrigued, too.

However, a mashup is not the only way to use all available classics. Much more often, it generates endless sequels, good or bad. Perhaps, it was most evident in the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes. Ingenious detective fascinated readers so much, that fan works with his participation began to appear much earlier than you can imagine.

In pre-revolutionary Russia. Right, almost alongside the latest writings of Conan Doyle, Russian writers P. Orlovets and P. Nikitin created works that at that time were considered no worse than the original, and some were even attributed to the author of Holmes himself. Did this writers’ duet infringe the copyright of Conan Doyle? Well, yes. But at that time it was treated a little easier and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Russia" were taken for granted. By the way, we also recommend it.

Not all the heirs of the books about Sherlock Holmes retain their original surroundings – "The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in Russia" take the heroes not just to another country, but also to other times. Holmes also arrives in Russia in Boris Akunin's book "The Jade Rosary" (where he is Erast Fandorin's company). Neil Gaiman, in the collection of short stories "Fragile Things", confidently mixes "A Study in Scarlet" and Lovecraft's dark motives. But our hands-down favourite is "Sherlock Holmes vs the Martians" by Henry Lyon Oldie. Who else would deal with an alien invasion if not the best detective in England?

Let's face it: not many sequels equal the original in quality, let alone surpass it. Even the authors' sequels may come out mediocre, and their followers face a difficult task, whether they should continue the already logically completed (in most cases) book, or not. As a result, many sequels turn out to be crude, awkward but imbued with sincere love for the original. Treat them with caution and understanding.

So, entering the public domain for a book is a natural process that you now understand a little better. Every year the list of books open to the world is replenished with new works of classics, and the shelves of bookshops – with their remakes, sequels, interpretations and whatever fans could think of. It is in your power to find a diamond in the rough among fan literature – or an excuse to turn your back on it forever.

After all, it's your lawful right.

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