concept to publication

Category: rights

New York Public Library provides hi-res images for free use

"Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, , 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

It’s encouraging to see libraries and museums beginning to make public domain images freely available, increasingly providing high-resolution scans or photos for downloading. Historically, they have guarded images of objects in their collections as a private source of income. Count the New York Public Library among the honorable elite who have made their pd images available to be shared. The library has just put up more than 180,000 images in hi-res free for the downloading. Highlights of the collection include photographs from the Farm Security Administration and Works Progress Administration, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, Walt Whitman papers (1854–1892), and early film shorts.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. "Old Man Depression sent us out on the road ... You don't know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you 'hit' Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. “Old Man Depression sent us out on the road … You don’t know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you ‘hit’ Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.



Bravo, Walters!

llama, chamay culture, earthenware, 1000-1470

llama, chamay culture, earthenware, 1000-1470

The Walters Art Museum has donated some 19,000 images of works from their collections to Wikimedia. They are among the museums — another is the Getty — who reject the spurious claim of some institutions that they can control the copyright on works that are hundreds of years old. In 2006 they removed admission fees. In 2011 they made 20,000 images available on their website through a Creative Commons license. I endorse this attitude, which promotes the free exchange of ideas and furthers the institution’s educational mission in a dramatic and effective way.



How to figure an advance against book royalties

This will be a little basic for many but maybe helpful to others. Authors often wonder whether the advance a publisher is offering is a fair one. There is a simple formula that can help you to judge.

Advances are, in theory, a prepayment against expected royalties. Authors are often concerned about whether their books “earn out” their advances — that is, whether royalties from actual book sales are equal to or greater than their advance against royalties. The advance represents a kind of benchmark for expectations of a title, and when actual royalties fall short of that number authors feel their titles have underperformed. There is a degree of truth to this, but it’s not the whole story. There are many factors behind the size of advances, and a book that doesn’t earn out can still be a success — the advance excess is in effect the equivalent of a slightly higher royalty percentage.

Still, authors have to do their best with the information they have, so we will assume the advance is logical relative to expected royalties. This being the case, the best way to judge the advance is to get a sense of the publisher’s sales expectations. To do this, try to find out about how many copies will be printed and about what the retail price is likely to be. Those figures will give you a sense of how the publisher is thinking about the title in terms of sales.

As an example let’s use nice round numbers for ease of calculation. Say the publisher plans to print 10,000 copies and sell them at $20 each and is offering the author a royalty of 10 percent off the full retail price. Now, many of the copies that are being printed will not be sold: copies are needed for reviewers and other purposes (among them the inefficiencies of book distribution), but we are only trying to get a ballpark figure, so we’ll ignore that level of refinement.

With that caveat, sales of 10,000 books would equal a total retail value of $200,000, of which 10 percent would be $20,000. Consequently, a logical advance for this title would be somewhere around $20,000.  Woohoo, you’re rich!

Frequently asked questions — how do I protect my work’s copyright?

copyright logo

I receive a lot of e-mail from aspiring authors, mainly because of the popularity of my guide to getting a book published, and to a lesser degree my book publishing glossary (which is actually aimed at a more advanced audience). One of the questions I get most often is “How do I protect my work from being stolen when I send it out to prosepctive publishers?” This is not a question that established authors usually agonize over, and I’ve fumbled around a little bit for an answer before evolving my current response:

In the U.S. your work is automatically protected by copyright from the moment of creation (at present it lasts for your lifetime plus 70 years). Reputable publishers stealing work from authors is rare (less rare is being offered an unfavorable contract after acceptance). If you are concerned, you may discretely place somewhere a notice in the form of Copyright 2010 by YourName, although most established authors do not do this, and you should be aware that doing so can make you appear amateurish. It conveys to publishers the subliminal suggestion that you don’t trust them not to steal your work.

It is possible to register your work with the copyright office for a small fee, which provides significant additional protection, but it is probably best not to mention having done so to a prospective publisher at the time of submission — again, it can appear unprofessional, since it is usually beginning writers who are most concerned about this. For more information see

It is sometimes suggested that you could also document the date of your work through taking a photo, sending the work as an attachment in an email, or mailing it to yourself, but I doubt this really accomplishes much. I have published quite a few books, and I have never done this with any of them.


Image from El Mariachi 94’s photostream


Mailbag: What should my royalty rate be?

Rightreading hereby initiates a new feature (no doubt destined to be as fitful as all our others) in which we answer e-mails from readers.

A reader writes

I know very little about book contracts.

Can you please elaborate on this subject?

Specifically, what percentage of each book sold should I receive as the author?


Dear reader

The most general answer is “whatever the market will bear.” If you are writing great poetry that will someday be taught in university classes, the answer is no one is likely to pay you any royalty at all. On the other hand, if you are a famous and controversial public figure — Sarah Palin say — you can pretty near name your price.

But the general answer isn’t much help to the vast majority of writers who fall somewhere between those extremes.

Should publishing be open?

Tim O’Reilly makes some points in its favor.


Reader sues over translations

The reader, Bradley LaShawn Fowler, is suing two Bible publishers (Thomas Nelson and Zondervan), alleging that the translators erroneously rendered a passage resulting in a false suggestion that it condemns homosexuality.

At issue is I Corinithians 6:9, and whether two Greek terms allude to homosexuality or prostitution or something else. (The King James version of the passage gives “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.”)

The case is reported at Language Log, where the lively discussion it provoked included the following comments:

JACK COLLINS: Biblical scholars are actually pretty stumped about what exactly ???????????? were, since the term appears nowhere in the Greek corpus before Paul. Considering that there were quite a few terms for various sorts of male-male sexual practices in Koine Greek, it is curious that Paul chose to coin a whole new word. Literally, it would translate as “man bedders” or “bed men,” but that doesn’t really narrow it down. It is possible that Paul meant to allude to the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Leviticus 18:22 (??? ???? ??????? ?? ????????? ?????? ????????…, lit.”and with a man you will not sleep a woman’s bed…”). Whatever Paul’s intent, it probably was not to condemn male-male sexual relations between men of equal age and social status, since such relationships were rather uncommon in the Hellenistic world.

GORDONOZ: Maybe rich men should sue Bible translators, claiming they have been embittered and disappointed by their failed efforts to fit camels through the eyes of needles.

CRAIG RUSSELL: My opinion is that Fowler is barking up the wrong tree here. Paul probably did want to single out men who engaged in sexual activity with other men-especially given the context. “Pornoi” (as seen from the English derivative) and ‘moichoi’ are unquestionably sexual terms. Paul probably did consider it a sin for men to have sex with each other. For Fowler to insist that the Bible must mean what he already believes it to mean is no different from a fundamentalist insisting the same-it’s putting the answer before the question.


Copyright flow chart

The law firm of Bromberg and Sunstein has an unusually handy flow chart of U.S. copyright duration on their website.

Speaking of copyright, the flow chart bears a copyright notice. But I think I’m okay since the image below is too small to be usable. Click through to the original.

duration of copyright flow chart


Creative Commons

flickr cc

If you will glance down at the footer on this page (or follow the “about” or “policies” links) you will see that I have replaced my copyright notices with creative commons ones. I’m hardly a leader in this — as a guy who has worked in book publishing for many years I have had the notion of copyright deeply ingrained. And there remain a few pieces, like my article on Gutenberg and the Koreans for example, that need to remain under copyright because of publishing arrangements.

But as a blogger I know that people want and need materials they can use readily and with a minimum of fuss. If I want this for myself, why should I deny it to others? Information, it is said, wants to be free, and I don’t want to be the one to enslave it.

Creative Commons is especially helpful when you need an image to accompany something you’re writing about. Flickr makes this wonderfully easy. By going to you can search for photos that have been uploaded with a CC license. As a photo user I would always start there and only go through the hassle of contacting owners of copywrited photos if really necessary. As you can see from the Flickr CC search page, CC licenses have several flavors:

  • Attribution License
  • Attribution-NoDerivs License
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
  • Attribution-NonCommercial License
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License
  • Attribution-ShareAlike License

I’m not sure which is best — there are arguments for each, I suppose — but I chose Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs, in part because this was the most popular among Flickr users, so it’s probably where the majority of the searches will occur. (Is this the best choice? Let me know your thoughts.)

There are a few websites that automate Flickr CC searches, including:

Behold seems to apply some kind of quality filter to search results. FlickCC lets you browse through thumbnails, at 36 to the page. A screenshot from this site is shown above.

There is also a WordPress plugin called PhotoDropper that lets you search for Flickr CC photos from within the WordPress dashboard. Once a photo is selected it will automatically insert the photo along with any required credit. Cool, but I have not installed it because it sounds like your ability to format the results is limited.

Finally, I would like to see the CC logo — which looks like a copyright symbol but with two cees rather than one — become a standard glyph in fontsets.

creative commons loog



Recognizing scam publishing offers

Ellen M. Kozak has written a nice summary at Wisconsin Lawyer about “Spotting the Publishing Scam.” You can read the full post there, but I think it’s worth summarizing the main points:

  • Real publishers don’t make offers overnight. A publisher who offers an agreement a couple days after the ms. arrives is pulling a scam.
  • A scam publisher may be especially persistent in pushing its contract
  • Check out the publisher on the web and in bookstores
  • Vanity publishers ask for money; real publishers don’t
  • Token advances, such as $1, should be viewed with suspicion
  • A publisher that grossly overprices books may be hoping to make money off sales to authors — in such cases the contract will likely show a below normal number of free copies (normal tends to be around 10-20 copies)
  • A highly restrictive option clause is a common feature of scam contracts
  • Rights not specifically assigned by the agreement should be reserved by the author, not the publisher

In my experience — having negotiated many book contracts — agents generally represent authors better than lawyers, because lawyers know contracts but agents know the book industry. The author of this article, however, is an exception. She appears to know the law and publishing.


via Adventures in Writing


Happy Public Domain Day

Midnight at the end of December 31 marked the passing of countless works into public domain. Copyright laws vary by country around the world. Most countries observe passage into public domain at death of the creator plus fifty years. In other words, the works of authors and artists who died in or before 1957 are now in the public domain. Some of the artists in this category include

  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Diego Rivera
  • Constantin Brancusi
  • Gabriela Mistral
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Alfred Döblin
  • Malcolm Lowry

So as long as you distribute only in life+50 countries you are free to publish these works as you wish.

Another group of countries — about half as many, including much of Europe — observe the life + 70 years definition of public domain. A few of the creators who died in 1937 are

  • George Gershwin
  • Jean de Brunhoff (“Babar”)
  • Amelia Earhart (probably)
  • J.M. Barrie
  • Horacio Quiroga
  • Edith Wharton

Thanks to the power of Disney, however, in the U.S. works published after 1923 will most likely be bound by copyright virtually forever (via the “Steamboat Willie Rule”), until our legislators develop spines. (When will that happen?)

I wish someone would ask a question about intellectual property rights in one of the presidential “debates,” instead of rehashing the same tired seven or eight issues.


Is copyright corroding our society?

That’s what Stanford professor Larry Lessig says in this lecture (it takes about 19 minutes and it’s well worth watching the whole thing — but in any case be sure not to miss the mash-up about 9:30 in). Dan Blank summarizes:

He concludes that copyright laws remain antiquated with regards to how our kids are using media online – via mashups, downloads, and original content creation using pieces of existing copyrighted works.

The end result is that our children are growing up knowingly breaking the law in their daily lives. They “live life knowing they live it against the law.” He calls this corrosive and corrupting to a democracy.

Confused about copyright

There’s a fellow named Kevin Harris who thinks he can copyright a list of comments of Albert Einstein. Gosh, do you think the Einstein estate will have to go to this guy from now on to get permission to use the quotes?

Read the contract

You don’t want this sad story to be yours.

your book contract: read it

Optimal Copyright

Rufus Pollock, a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Cambridge, has done a calculation that he says shows the optimum term of copyright is 14 years. He will present his paper, entitled Forever Minus a Day? Some Theory and Empirics of Optimal Copyright, at the 2007 SERCI Congress in Berlin this week.


Copyright video

Below is part one of the Disneyfied copyright video.

I previously linked to part two — which proves the information must be reliable.

The Fairy Use Doctrine

Disney characters recite the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use.

Answering the copyright question for books published 1923-1963

Okay, we know books published in the U.S. before 1923 are probably in public domain. And the copyright of books published after 1963 was automatically renewed. But books published in the forty years between those two dates might or might not be in public domain, depending on whether the copyright holder renewed the copyright.

Books published in the U.S. during those years received an initial copyright term of 28 years, meaning the if the work was originally published in 1932, for example, its copyright would expire in 1960. But the copyright holder could renew the copyright for another 47 years in the final year of its first term (that is, in the 28th year). And, further complicating matters, anything that was under copyright in 1998 had its term extended for an additional 20 years. That means that a book published in 1932 is either in public domain or under copyright until 2027.

That’s a big difference, so which is it? To find out whether the copyright of a book from the 1923-1963 period was renewed, one used to have to commission a copyright search through the copyright office, which generally costs about $75. But now some institutions are putting the copyright database online, so if you’re planning to put some classic text on your website, and you want to be sure you’re legal, you can research it here:

Universal Google?

In D-Lib magazine David Bearman provides an abstract of the argument Jean-Noël Jeanneney (President of the Bibliothèque nationale de France) presents in his Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View from Europe (University of Chicago Press, October 2006). Jeanneney argues:

  1. Google’s selection skews “the world’s knowledge” toward English-language texts, especially those from the U.S. (For example, searches for Dante, Cervantes and Goethe find not the original texts but English translations.)
  2. Google snippets decontextualize texts, and the works presented so far are poor in visual quality.
  3. Google Books SERPS inappropriately rank results, perhaps with a bias toward results with commercial ramifications.
  4. There are dangers with the privitization of collective knowledge. Google has already shown a complicity with censorship in China.
  5. Google’s liberal interpretation of copyright laws may not fully respect the legal or moral rights of authors.

Bearman concludes his abstract by expressing his opinion that “Jean-Noël Jeanneney has done us all a service by reminding us to look under the hood and hold Google, and those providing content to it, accountable. In the two years since Google first announced its ambitions, I think the D-Lib community has largely given Google the benefit of the doubt; now that some results are visible and the implications are more clear, I think it’s time to publicly endorse open access to rights-cleared, high quality, scanned page images and reconsider the appropriate roles for academic and public institutions participating in commercial analogue heritage conversion efforts that don’t contribute to this end.”

this item first noted at if:book

In related news: a few months ago Google announced a new program, Google Purge, as part of “a far-reaching plan to destroy all the information it is unable to index.”

Some rights reserved 2022 Right Reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via