Thursday, May 02, 2019

Copyright Conundrum

One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, published many books of essays over the long span of his career. A few of the early volumes have been allowed to go out of print. Aside from fabulously overpriced used copies, they can be found only in libraries—and not many of those. The copies I was able to read came through inter-library loan from the one library in Maryland that accumulates and retains a huge collection of older books that most public libraries tend to cull (for lack of space, I know, but the practice still pains me to contemplate). Many of the essays in those volumes have been included in more recent collections released by the Lewis estate, but not all. I made photocopies of the otherwise unavailable items I wanted to keep and reread, for my own private use.

Thinking about those "lost" Lewis books recently, I've been contemplating a hypothetical ethical question about out-of-print works. Consider a deceased author whose writings are old enough that some have lapsed out of copyright, even though most are still under copyright and being published by his estate. (I don't know whether any early Lewis works are in fact old enough to be in the public domain; he just happens to be the author who started me thinking about this situation.) Suppose those out-of-print, public domain works are hard to find and impossible to buy at any reasonable price. Suppose a devoted reader scanned those books, articles, or stories and made them available online for free. (Not that I plan to do any such thing; it would be way too much work!) Obviously it would be wrong, even if technically legal, for an individual fan to charge money for them. A reputable publisher might offer such works for sale with editorial material for added value, but I would hope such a publisher would notify the estate of its intention as a courtesy, at least, even if not required to under law.

Now, it seems clear that scanning and distributing such works would be legal, because in this hypothetical example they're in the public domain. My imagined reader doesn't make any changes in the text and certainly doesn't claim the writings as his or her own. This person's sole motive is to make "lost" works available to other fans. Would this activity be ethically permissible? I believe it would. Not only is it legal, the author's estate has effectively abandoned the books. Having not reprinted them since their release in the 1920s or before (which would have to be the publication date for the material to be in the public domain), it clearly has no intention of ever doing so. The hypothetical scanner and distributor would be performing a service for other fans who want to read those "abandoned" writings.

This seems to me at least as ethically okay as publishing books such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, which add extra material to the largely unchanged text of a classic novel while making no claim to ownership of the original work. Any thoughts on my hypothetical scenario?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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