Fact and Fiction on the Copyright Page

POSTED ON Jun 13, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Editorial, Self-Publishing > Fact and Fiction on the Copyright Page

Sometimes you have to wonder. Generally, you trust people, don’t you? You think most people are telling you the truth, and it’s always a little surprising to remember there are people who will lie to your face without blinking an eye.

If you find out someone who you thought was trustworthy has been telling you a lot of lies, it undermines your trust in them. This is as true for philandering politicians as it is for government spokespeople.

There are lots of ways to avoid telling the truth, and lots of words to describe various ways of skirting it.

You can

  • dissemble, cover up or doubletalk,
  • misinform, intentionally give wrong information,
  • delude, cheat or fool,
  • equivocate, avoid an issue,
  • mislead, give the wrong information,
  • misrepresent, give a wrong picture of,

and plenty more.

Yesterday I was looking at warranty information on a new camera. This was at a large online retailer used by many photo professionals, one of the few outlets that have this particular camera in stock.

Part of the purchase process is picking a “protection plan” or “extended warranty.” Here’s the selection box from the website:

copyright for self-publishersYou can see the retailer has helpfully made your job easier by indicating that the 5-year coverage is the “best value.”

The only problem arises if you’re quick at math. If this doesn’t look right to you, and you get out your calculator, you’ll soon find that the 3-year plan costs $68.33/year, while the 5-year plan bumps that up a full 20% to $81.99/year.

You can decide whether this is a “computer glitch” or a clever way to increase the already huge profit margins on extended warrantees.

That Wouldn’t Happen in Publishing, Though, Right?

What does this have to do with publishing? It’s a story about the copyright page.

Back when I was newer in publishing I spent quite a bit of time researching copyright. One of the authors I was researching—Peter Ouspensky—was Russian by birth, had left during the revolution early in the twentieth century, had then lived in France for a while before finally settling in England.

A book of his collected essays was published by one of the most prestigious book publishers in the United States, who also published other books by the same author.

I was publishing books in the same niche, and there were several unpublished works by Ouspensky and others that I was tracking down. I thought that if I managed to publish one of these lost treasures I might have a big seller on my hands.

It soon became clear to me that the book of essays I was looking at had something wrong with it. Without going into a lot of boring detail, let me just say that I had found out the origins of many of the essays, and from my study of the copyright law about these things, I started to feel like someone was lying to me.

The copyright page of this book had a standard publisher copyright, which was odd in itself for a volume full of material that had been published elsewhere first.

Eventually I become completely convinced I was right. I went ahead and selected a number of the essays in the book, which was not very focused, and came out with my own book under a new name. I now had an “original” Ouspensky book of my own, and went out to market it.

Soon enough, the phone rang. It was a top editor at the publishing house with the book of essays. It’s a while ago, and I don’t remember the conversation word for word, but it went something like this:

“So I see you’re publishing essays from our book, . . .?”

“Yes, I’ve made a new selection. Do you like it?”

“Well, that’s our book.”

“Sure. You mean you published it, right? I see you put a copyright notice in it, didn’t you?”

“Uhm, yes.”

“But you know as well as I do that book isn’t copyrightable. There is no copyright.”

“Well, it’s our book and there isn’t room for two.”

End of discussion.

In other words, this prestigious publisher, the most influential literary publisher of the day, had intentionally published a book with a phony copyright notice in it. Why?

Deterrent. Who else would have stumbled on the real status of this book? It’s a little like putting up a “Beware of Dog” sign on your property when you own no dogs at all.

The Problem with Institutional Lying

But you can’t do things like that without eroding trust. When your company gets so big, so removed from readers that it can treat them like easily-misled children, you’ve got a problem. And when, at long last, the tools of publishing fall into the hands of the authors, there may not be much good will remaining toward big, conglomerate publishing houses.

Even the vaunted “gatekeeper” function that aspiring writers have been aiming to get past turns out to be a ruse, doesn’t it? Books were gatekept, all right, but not usually because of their outstanding literary merit. The publish/no publish decision is driven by profit, not powerful prose.

That means that your book may be rejected by one house after another, and it may have nothing to do with your research, your writing, your contribution to society or your mastery of your subject. It’s solely about sales and profit. It just won’t sell enough.

Those days are drawing to a close. The new publishers will be more tuned to readers, more concerned with authors. And, one hopes, they won’t lie right to your face.

Photo by Douglas O’Brien

Self-Publisher's-Quick-Easy-Guide-CopyrightWant to know more about copyright? Need some sample copyright pages to drop into your book? Confused about the things you read online about copyright? Check out this 30-page easy-to-read guide. Click The Self-Publisher’s Quick & Easy Guide to Copyright for more info, or Buy Now as PDF or Kindle.

Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander

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