Creative Commons as Anti-Spam Technology, Plus Frankenstein

by John Holbo on March 7, 2016

Cory Doctorow links to a nifty graphic design project: crowdsourced covers for public domain classics. If you know anyone teaching a relevant art class at the high school level, or above, I think this might make a fine class project. Everyone pick a title and go for it!

Cory: “I can’t figure out what license the new covers are under and whether anyone can use them as covers in their own collections of public domain books, or whether permission must be sought for each design.” I wondered about that as well. The info page doesn’t cover rights. I signed up to see what one would have to agree to. Answer: a CC license. (Cory will be gratified to hear it!)

I am submitting my work under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license, which requires the work be credited at all times.

Despite retaining ownership of my work, I hereby grant Creative Action, Inc (“Creative Action Network”) a non-exclusive, worldwide license to promote, display, share and sell my work, attributed to me, on sites or accounts owned or operated by us, our affiliates, or our partners.

I understand and agree with the revenue sharing model (I receive 40% of all revenue after costs) and grant permission to Creative Action Network to sell my work on my behalf. I have the right to opt out of this at any time by contacting

Work I submit will not infringe third party copyright and Creative Action Network will not be responsible for any infringement on my part.

If I am younger than 13, I have the approval of a parent or legal guardian to submit to the Creative Action Network.

That seems sensible.

Why not release them as public domain images, to go with public domain books? You couldn’t, while allowing (per the info page) use of CC-licensed elements. Also, artists want credit, at least. But, strictly from a classic book-promotion angle, the results would be perverse. Amazon’s Kindle store (and other outlets) would be invaded by clone armies of Gutenberg scrapes, skinned with shiny new, nice covers. The problem with that, from a reader’s perspective, is you want to be able to judge an e-book by its cover. Somewhat. Poorly made e-books are spam, and spammers are, thankfully, typically (one suspects congenitally) lacking in graphic design sense:


Also, they have trouble with spelling:


Truly, a design sub-genre unto itself. (Where clip art and outsider art meet!) While I was preparing the Kindle edition of our – well made! properly formatted! – book I discovered a trove in the Kindle Greek and Roman section, in particular. Like the sea-god Glaucus, whose melancholy case Plato considers in Republic Book X (which I discuss in my – properly formatted! spellchecked! – commentary) so many golden-souled works are encrusted with scurf and detritus.

Both of these Kindle books have 4.5 stars and hundreds of reviews, due to Amazon aggregating that across reputable and disreputable editions alike. (Even an Audible edition!) Flagrantly amateurish covers are our first line of defense against wasting time and money, so it would be a pity to lose that.

Ergo, it would make the literary world marginally worse to commission good covers and let anyone use them.

So much, so obvious, maybe. But one semi-non-obvious corollary is that CC is anti-spam technology. In a weak sense. In an environment in which many are adding value for value’s sake – makers and sharers, putting in more than the market is likely to give back – but a few are generating content shoddily and bulkily, to skim a penny, you want heuristics for telling which sort of thing you are dealing with. Knowing it is public domain doesn’t give a clue; knowing it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial actually does. As the present case illustrates.

In semi-related, under 13-but-with-parental-permission news, I have been working on an illustrated Frankenstein with my younger daughter. The game is this: I tell her what happens in the chapter; she draws a picture. I was explaining to her about CC and how it might be fun to publish her work that way. Here, I’ll give you just a teaser. Extracts from Captain Walton’s letters, which open the novel.

UPDATE: I posted some jpegs but, on second thought, a short PDF may be more efficient.

She hasn’t designed a cover yet.

OK, here’s the deal. We’re kind of stuck round about Chapter 15. Violet thinks the book is getting depressing, frankly. She is used to happy endings. More of a Wreck-It Ralph kind of literary vibe. I warned her: it’s going to be a bummer. But if she knows she has an enthusiastic fanbase, she will be more likely to persevere. Praise her artistry and I shall, as her agent, pass along positive reviews to the artist herself.



John Holbo 03.07.16 at 3:55 am

The last time I complained about Gutenberg scrapers someone thought I was dissing Project Gutenberg. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are great. But I disapprove of people repackaging all that, to sell, without adding value. Also, I just don’t trust scrapers even to cut&paste accurately.


Yankee 03.07.16 at 5:48 am

The illustrations are thoroughly charming, with a consistent style and a sure hand.


James Davies 03.07.16 at 6:02 am

Your daughter’s illustrations are fantastic. The stitching on the Monster is a nice touch. Keep up the excellent work.

For a less cute take on Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, I would highly recommend Bernie Wrightson’s illustrated version in full Franklin Booth style, finished in the mid-1980s. Not only did he make a new cover for public domain classic, but added over 40 illustrations to boot. Nice added value!


Neville Morley 03.07.16 at 6:06 am

Spelling aside, the Thucydides edition is expressing a profound insight into modern receptions of the work. And it’s a scream.


John Holbo 03.07.16 at 8:06 am

“The illustrations are thoroughly charming, with a consistent style and a sure hand.”

“The stitching on the Monster is a nice touch.”

Yep, we’ve got the blurbs. Now we just need the book.


Z 03.07.16 at 9:45 am

The Brothers Karamazov’s cover is great! Wait, that was not… I…


John Holbo 03.07.16 at 9:57 am

Remember Father Zosima: “Wax on, wax off!” And when Ivan sweeps the leg of God by returning his ticket!


Phil 03.07.16 at 10:17 am

Which chapter was Frankenstein’s Mall in?


Adam Hammond 03.07.16 at 3:47 pm

The illustrations outshine the text to such a degree that it unclear which artist should be considered an amateur.

Man do I dislike Frankenstein. We had a cultural need for a metaphor about our hubris, and so we used what we had. I can’t help feeling that chance was unkind, and that we could have done much better.


js. 03.08.16 at 12:27 am

I really like how the illustrations carry over into the areas with printed text. Very “transcending the canvas”, that. But really, I am completely serious — I think that’s a brilliant feature.


Icastico 03.08.16 at 1:00 am

Don Hetzfeld would have done no better on the illustrations and he has Oscar nominations.


John Holbo 03.08.16 at 5:25 am

Thank you all kindly. Violet will be glad to hear it.


novakant 03.10.16 at 7:50 pm

So what happens if someone actually violates a CC license – not in theory but in the real world. I doubt most of the artists licensing under CC have the means, time or the knowledge to actually pursue violations, but I don’t have any data, not even anecdotal?

Anybody have experiences to share?


novakant 03.10.16 at 7:56 pm

… experiences or data to share.

Comments on this entry are closed.