It’s …. alive!

by John Holbo on February 20, 2007

So it happened like this. I noticed that the Gutenberg Project version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t indicate which edition – 1818 or 1831. The two are rather different, as the author rewrote whole passages. Example: I just read a piece by Brian Aldiss in which he asserts, in passing, that H.G. Wells must have been misremembering when he wrote that “Frankenstein, even, used some jiggery-pokery magic to animate his artificial monster.” But: this would only be clearly wrong concerning the 1818 version, which is actually more ‘scientific’. An appendix to a recent edition of the 1818 edition notes: “the 1831 reader is allowed to think that the faculty at Ingolstadt [where young Victor gets his schooling] in the 1790s, even the previously sympathetic Waldman … were indeed teaching arcane magic under the name of natural science.” That’s sort of debatable, as a reading of the 1831 edition, seems to me. But it probably explains Wells’ impression.

Anyhoo. The Gutenberg version is definitely 1831. But, since Gutenberg editions are – Frankenstein-fashion – cobbled from the corpses of works passed into the public domain – it seemed possible that it was maybe a bit of both. Also, there are lots of typos (you get what you pay for.) Mostly just misplaced commas, colons and semicolons, but hundreds of those. (I’m convinced that the main export of Victorian England was the overused semicolon. Seriously, Shelley’s punctuation is bizarre. What’s with all the colons followed by dashes? Is that really necessary? Oh well.) So for the last few weeks I’ve been working through it, a chapter a night, with a public domain (1912 Everyman) edition of the 1831 edition in hand. I’m up to chapter 18. When I’m done I’m going to make a nice public domain edition. (Maybe do a book event.)

So here’s my question. When I’m done, I’d like to double-check it against an appendix to a still-in-copyright 1818 edition, which gives all the differences between the 1818 and 1831 editions. On the one hand, I really ought to be working from public domain material. On the other hand, I’m not exactly copying this appendix; merely verifying the correctness of text I’ve independently produced. Suppose I end up adding, subtracting or shifting 100 characters worth of punctuation, thanks to consultation of this appendix? Would that be a violation of copyright? Seems a bit weird if it is. 100 character total ought to be fair use, right? There must be copyright traditions concerning editorial questions like this, yes? Am I allowed to treat the appendix as containing information I am allowed to use freely?

UPDATE: Ben Wolfson has related, deep thoughts: “Punctuation marks can be very expressive, especially em dashes (my favorites!—maybe tied with semicola), so why ought one restrict their use to single isolated occurences? Surely in combination they can achieve heretofore undreamt-of degrees of subtlety in expression. (My gloss on the comash was that it implies a degree of reticence or hesitancy, and then:—suddenly elsewhere, or the dam is burst.)”

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Crooked Timber » » Pains-taking Plus Metropolis
02.24.07 at 2:13 am



grackel 02.20.07 at 4:28 am

how can it possibly be that an 1818 edition is still under copyright? This is after all years before Mickey Mouse.


grackel 02.20.07 at 4:29 am

OH, bu to your question, I’m no lawyer, couldn’t help you, but I’d like to see someone prove a copyright violation on the basis of a few instances of punctuation.


John Holbo 02.20.07 at 4:38 am

I’m not really worried about being sued, but if I decided to release an edition into the public domain, I would also like to provide a clear account of how I made it – so folks could know what they were getting. And I would like that account to be consistent with what I do actually being in the public domain. An edition OF the 1818 edition can still be in copyright, of course. I couldn’t just photocopy their stuff and sell it for money. But it seems like fair use to extract information from it, as I am planning to do. I’m suddenly mildly curious about precedent in this area. There must be precedent because editors are always building on the work of earlier editors. Perhaps there is just a sort of gentlemanly tradition of not suing producers of new editions if they have clearly actually produced a new edition, not merely ripped off someone’s stuff for profit.


CR 02.20.07 at 4:47 am

I’ve wondered about this question too. Mainly in the context of thinking about coming up with my own free Norton Anthology replacement to give to my students free of charge in pdf or whatever. (God – now there’s a place where a small bit of collaborative work could pay off in spades for a bunch of people). In making this document, I could start with the gutenberg and then edit via copyrighted texts, but then that seems to be quasi-wrong.

We’d (my British Writers 2 classes and I) would love to use your Frankenstein, though, for sure…


CR 02.20.07 at 4:52 am

How wonderful, in general, would it be if there was a subsite under Gutenberg (or wherever) of teaching-ready texts – i.e. texts that are vouched for as correct enough to use. As it is, it’s a wonderful resource, but you’re not going to have students download Hamlet or Great Expectations to use in class for the reasons John describes.


miller 02.20.07 at 4:59 am

you would seem to be using this appendix as a source of factual information — you should credit it, but I don’t see how you are copying anything from the appendix itself. You would be “copying” — if you could even call it that — from either the 1818 text or 1831 text — both of which I would think are in the public domain (as opposed to the appendix,which may have been written more recently).


DCA 02.20.07 at 5:19 am

Just for clarity, are you trying to (re)produce the 1831 edition (sounds like it) or the 1818 one? You say the appendix would only show differences in punctuation, but also that the 1818 and 1831 differ significantly.

What you really need, of course, is a photoreproduction or original of both printings to check against, since these would both be out of copyright.

I am not sure that you can “release into the public domain” (in the US at least)…


John Holbo 02.20.07 at 5:29 am

The appendix is rather extensive. It contains whole long passages that are added, so the appendix text differs considerably from the 1818 text the book contains, but doesn’t differ from the edition I have independently produced (if you see what I mean). The edition is the Oxford World Classics (edited by Marilyn Butler). I could just as easily use any other 1831 edition-based edition, however. (Such as the Johanna M Smith edition.) This appendix allows me to focus on likely trouble spots, i.e. points where any serious problems are likely to arise, in case any Gutenberg contributor was working from an 1818 edition (which is actually pretty unlikely, but you don’t want to make a mistake.) Assuming no serious problem arises (so far my text matches scholarly editions word for word, and I’m up to chapter 18), the only real issue is incidental punctuation. There are slight punctuation variations between the public domain edition I am using and the most recent scholarly editions. I suppose the most sensible thing is to simply email Marilyn Butler, or the publisher, and ask permission to use the appendix.

As to ‘release into the public domain’: can’t I do that? I was thinking of just giving my product to Gutenberg, as well as making a PDF and just saying I’m releasing it into the public domain. (Is that not a felicitous speech act?)


ben wolfson 02.20.07 at 5:30 am

Seriously, Shelley’s punctuation is bizarre. What’s with all the colons followed by dashes?

Such a construction has its own physiognomy and is not to be dismissed out of hand.


John Holbo 02.20.07 at 9:18 am

Suppose (for the sake of argument) your Everyman edition says ‘first included in Everyman’s library 1912’ on the copyright page but the physical copy you hold is a reprint from years later. There isn’t any assertion of a later copyright date. There isn’t any way to renew copyright by reprinting, is there? If you did, you would have to assert it on the copyright page? Correct?


SG 02.20.07 at 9:39 am

My pet hate: Victorian-era (and even more so in Gothic novels) over-use of commas. As if those chicks weren`t hysterical and breathy enough, they have to randomly throw in commas to puncutate their,completely,pointless,lives,even,more. Many is the paragraph I have physically choked on while reading that stuff.

Damn good thing it went out of style, in my opinion.


Katherine 02.20.07 at 11:01 am

“those chicks”? What the hell? Never read any male Victorian novelists then, that most rare of beasts?


SG 02.20.07 at 11:58 am

Katherine by “those chicks” I meant the heroines, not the authors. I wouldn’t have referred to the actual real people who actually wrote the books as “those chicks” – it was a flippant term for the heroines and their petty bourgeouis concerns.

But since you ask, I don’t think i have read many male Victorian authors outside Thomas Hardy, who is not so big on the commas. When I think of excessive comma use I always recall the gothic novel (which invariably involves an excessively comma-inhibited heroine – god, those commas are like corsets); all those tedious Victorian novels about ladies who catch colds and get rescued from their infirmity at the end by inheriting slave money or marrying a rich prig; and Last of the Mohicans. Which is by a man but really could do with shorter sentences (and still has breathy female leads getting a little histrionic in between their commas – seems to be a trait of the Victorian novel).


Mathilda 02.20.07 at 1:51 pm

Apologies in advance for what will no doubt be the most pedantic comment ever left at Crooked Timber (maybe not, actually), but, — Frankenstein isn’t a Victorian novel, and Mary Shelley wasn’t a Victorian writer. Like Jane Austen, she was a Regency writer (or a Romantic, to use the parlance of the search committee).


Matt 02.20.07 at 1:55 pm

So, I take it you must have already received tenure or something? Or maybe the philosophy dept. there has weird ideas of what can go in a tenure file? ;)


Paul Ding 02.20.07 at 2:10 pm

Let’s put it into terms that make more sense. As secretary to John Doe, a terrible grammarian, Mary Roe is accustomed to correcting punctuation, grammar, spelling and other errors on the letters she types for him.

If they haul John into court and ask him under oath their respective roles, he will respond, “I wrote the letter, and Mary typed it.” If they haul Mary into court and ask her under oath their respective roles, she will respond, “Mr. Doe wrote the letter, and I typed it.”

They don’t grant copyrights to the copyeditor of an original literary work, but to the author. And it’s not considered an infringement of copyright if a reporter checks “Who’s Who” and “Encyclopedia Brittanica” in writing a news story, nor if a novelist checks the “Merck Manual” and “Gray’s Anatomy” in writing a murder mystery.

Copyright doesn’t protect the content of nonfiction, but the expression. You’re not infringing.


Matt Weiner 02.20.07 at 2:49 pm

Nicholson Baker had an essay that devoted considerable space to comashes and such beasts (IIRC an early Updike novel had a dash-comma). It was called “Survival of the Fittest” and was ostensibly a review of a book about punctuation in the New York Review of Books; in characteristic NYRB fashion the exotic punctuation marks that were most prominent in the essay were those that were not discussed in the book.


Another Damned Medievalist 02.20.07 at 3:01 pm

Sorry for the OT comment, but I didn’t want to e-mail all the Timberites individually. I’ve just awarded CT with a“>Thinking Blogger Award, which is meme-ish, but I think deserved.


SusanC 02.20.07 at 3:06 pm

The Project Gutenberg edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is somewhat notorious for being itself a monster cobbled together from different editions.

As I understand it, the current practise of Distributed Proofreaders (the largest group submitting books to Project Gutenberg) is to identify which edition of a book was transcribed. But this wasn’t always done in the early days of Project Gutenberg, and Frankenstein – in particular – is regarded as needing to be redone.


JR 02.20.07 at 3:59 pm

(Trollope was fond of the semicolon-dash;-)


Tim McG 02.20.07 at 4:16 pm

Unless the scholarly appendix you are using reconstructs something that does not exist, then it cannot be copyrighted. There is precious little that can be copyrighted in a scholarly edition of a PD work, but there’s also precious little competition to spur on infringement.

Yes, you can cede IP to the public domain, by, as you say, a speech act. You can give away property of any kind to anyone you want to (well, excepting guns and convicts and that sort of thing).


zozazumi 02.20.07 at 5:57 pm

What I think I know about U.S. copyright. One can copyright ANY material in the public domain by adding value to it. Adding value can be as simple as scanning in the text of a novel published in the 1800s and reprinting it with a fresh typeface. You own the copyright to your edition of the novel, but not to the novel itself.

If someone then takes your edition, scans it, and prints their version of the novel, they are in violation of your copyright. Many publishers insert subtle changes into their versions of public domain works to catch copyright violators.

A real world example would be a photo agency that acquires copies of public domain photos from the National Archives or Library of Congress. Once they’ve reprinted or scanned the photos or done any editing to them, they’ve added value and are legally entitled to copyright the images and sell them. That’s why you may see the same Matthew Brady photo on a variety of agency sites and each one bears that agency’s notice of copyright.

I am not a lawyer and this information is in no way presented as legal advice. This is the internet, not the law offices of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe (apologies to the Tappet Bros.).


Stacy 02.20.07 at 6:23 pm

I’m a volunteer at Distributed Proofreaders. And yes, as susanc points out, we do now include edition information with every book that’s uploaded to Project Gutenberg. We also have multiple rounds of proofreading to make sure those typos (or, in our case, scannos) are minimized.

I’ll make a note to our content providers that PG could use the 1818 edition, as well as a better 1831 edition as well. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell how long it would take for these to make it through the system.


nick s 02.20.07 at 8:56 pm

Colon-emdash is fairly common, especially in mid-to-late c-19 texts. I don’t know enough MSS to say whether it’s an authorial or typographical convention, but Victorian punctuation in general is pretty damn heavy.

Here’s to PG’s variorum editions, if and when they come. As much as initiatives such as Distributed Proofreaders are fantastic — and I’ve done some proofing — I’d love to see a few people with editing skills jump on board with models of how to assemble a good teaching or study text. Admittedly, it challenges the notion of working on a potentially-lucrative scholarly edition (£60 hardback, but a necessary purchase for university libraries) but the web has long been ripe as a medium for such things.


Sophia 02.20.07 at 11:59 pm

re: comment 13, the heroines of gothic novels are almost always members of the gentry (at the very least) so their concerns, while frequently annoying, are hardly petit bourgeois :) In fact, the only middle class heroine I can think of in a gothic novel is Mina Harker in Dracula and even she hangs out with aristocrats (not only the Count).


jholbo 02.21.07 at 12:20 am

Thanks, stacy. I’m almost done with my 1831 edition now, and I figure I’ll give it back to Gutenberg when I’m done – in addition to making any other use of it I decide to. So Gutenberg should have a much-improved Frankenstein soon. (Could use the 1818 edition, though.)


SG 02.21.07 at 5:18 am

Indeed Sophia, but when I said “petty” bourgeois I meant it.


Slocum 02.21.07 at 9:11 am

A real world example would be a photo agency that acquires copies of public domain photos from the National Archives or Library of Congress. Once they’ve reprinted or scanned the photos or done any editing to them, they’ve added value and are legally entitled to copyright the images and sell them.

That is doubtful — at least in the U.S. in light of the decision in the ‘Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel’ case:

The critical issue seems to be whether or not any creativity was involved in the reproduction or whether it was just an example of ‘slavish copying’. This leads me to wonder whether scanning a public domain text and changing the typeface or adding minor formatting, punctuation or spelling changes would constitute ‘creativity’ for the purposes of U.S. copyright law. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a case where the reasoning in Bridgeman is applied to reproduction of public domain texts.


T. Gracchus 02.22.07 at 3:15 pm

On the copyright issue: if you do not mark the product, it is not under copyright. You can also just note on the appropriate page that it is public domain. One cannot bring under copyright a public domain document by changing font or typeface. One needs to alter the document in some significant way. What is typically copyrighted in (same language) reprints is the introduction. It is rather difficult to see how there could be an issue about use of the appendix to check your work as you won’t actually be printing it and you will be using it for its intended purpose. Acknowledgement is nice but I doubt legally required.
If you have genuine concerns, you should do one of two things: consult the university’s counsel (they should have someone knoweldgeable on copyright, particuarly if they have a press) or spend $100 to get the opinion of a copyright lawyer. For those particularly interested in free-riding, there is also the possibility of a local equivalent of Lawyers for the Arts, whcih provides free or very low cost basic legal advice to artists re their practices.


Tim McG 02.23.07 at 3:50 am

Some errors in above posts (I don’t mean to be snarky, but the facts should be known):

zozazumi is wrong on a couple of points. “adding value” is not the standard for copyrighting. The actual test is whether a “spark of creativity” has occurred. (Yes, it’s more vague.) Under U.S. law, typesetting or scanning isn’t copyrightable. (Under UK law, and I don’t know where else, typesetting is copyrightable.) Adding value isn’t the same as adding creativity.

t. gracchus has the principle right but is wrong in saying that you have to publish something with a copyright notice in order for it to be in copyright. This was true before 1978, but works created after that point are protected from the moment of creation.

A lot of these more interesting questions don’t get hashed out because the people interested don’t have the money to take the cases to court.

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