concept to publication

Category: copyright

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.



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


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



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?

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:

Some rights reserved 2021 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