Fact and Fiction on the Copyright Page

by | Jun 13, 2011

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I was publishing books in the same niche, and there were several unpublished works by Ouspensky and others that I was tracking down.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.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Robert

    Still waiting for answer from the library, they tell me the person I need to get an answer from is on holidays.

    In the mean time does anyone know of a good site to load and sell a ebook? I have looked around at a few. Today I set up an account with Smashwords. Seems a good site then I got to the fine print. They seem to take out 30% tax to send to the IRS. Closing that account quickly.

    Some sites their margin is like 50% to 30%. A site with 30% and have a link which I can include in my web site would be good.

  2. Duncan Long

    I would think a library would never have any copyright standing unless they printed, wrote, or otherwise created the book. Lacking that, they no more would own a copyright than someone would to a book they purchased at Barnes & Noble.

    And if the book is 150 years old, I doubt that the copyright would be in effect anywhere in the world. The possible exception would be if the book was a photographic copy or such of an original, in which case the photographer might claim they held some rights to the images. Of course I’m not a lawyer so take all I’ve written with a grain of salt.

    • Robert

      Thanks for your comments. The books is long out of copyright. The author died in 1881, so no problem there.

      I paid for a copy of the book which the library supplied. When you order a copy you fill in a form saying your use is for research or other use. I originally said for research, now I wish publish it as an e-book.

      Doing the right thing, I contacted the library again saying about publishing it. They are saying its the intellectual property right of the Library and will need their permission. Also I need to include in the book where it came from, ie Library name and shelve number.

      Is it bluff or do they have the legal right?

      • Duncan Long

        If you’re in the US, then I’d this this sounds like not only a legal bluff, but unethical if not illegal. But I would again advise seeing a lawyer. The cost for one visit isn’t much and the peace of mind can be invaluable — not to mention the right to thumb your nose at the librarian :o)

      • Joel Friedlander

        I agree with Duncan, it’s impossible for anyone to claim ownership of the content of a book that’s in the public domain.

        However, you signed a form which sounds like it’s established a contract of sorts with the library that supplied you with the book. You’ll need to show the form to a lawyer to get an opinion of your status.

        Keep in mind that if you obtain a copy of this book from another source (who presumably will not ask you to sign any forms!) you can do with it whatever you like.

        • Duncan Long

          Building on what Joel said, have you checked the Gutenberg Project (https://www.gutenberg.org/ ) to see if the text is there waiting for you to download it? They don’t have everything, but they do have almost 40,000 texts and you might luck out there.

  3. Robert

    Joel, I’m in the same situation as you in regard to publishing some old books. These books are not famous, so will not be big sellers. Printed around mid to late 1800’s. I have decided to make them a project and republish them as they are, including spelling mistakes etc. I feel e-books is the way to go as this makes them available but not a huge cost burden to me. One things you may be able to help is how to setup a book, having trouble to find this information. Front and back pages of a book, which pages should go where, index, copyright pages etc.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Robert, sounds like an interesting project. There’s actually quite a bit of information on how books are put together here in the archives. A good place to start is here:

      Book Construction Blueprint

      • Robert

        I have looked at some of your archives, very helpful. I have found some of these books in libraries around the world and bought copies and then format them into a book form.
        The books printed 150 years ago, so out of copyright. The libraries say I need their permission to publish, do they have the legal right?

        “You are supplied with is a copy of the publication which is the intellectual property right of the Library, so you will need to apply for permission.”

        • Joel Friedlander


          I can’t give you legal advice, but in the US, if you bought the book somewhere else, and the work is in the public domain, I don’t believe the library would have any rights whatsoever. If you are copying and somehow digitizing a book borrowed from the library, seek the advice of a lawyer. If you borrow the book but re-type the text, again, I don’t believe the library would have any rights. Just my opinion. Keep in mind that in the US, once a work goes into the public domain (out of copyright) it can normally never go back.

          • Robert

            Joel, Copyright is not a concern with this book. I am in communication with the library now. So will see what happens. Maybe just fill in a form and everything will be ok?

            If it is that simple, maybe I will just fill in the form and place a one liner in the book that, ie library name and shelve number as they are requesting.

            Has any reader here experience this before?

    • Duncan Long

      @Joel: I managed to post below rather in this thread – sorry.

      @Robert: (see my post below -ha)… The only thing I can think of would be an edition that had special illustrations, was re-typeset, and so forth. In theory the DESIGN and illustrations can be copyrighted. Thus you will see old out-of-date work sometimes offered by a publisher under a new copyright. Even then, I doubt that OCR of the words and so forth would be breaking any copyright. However — I’m no lawyer.

      I would suggest going to a lawyer and getting his opinion in this matter would be money well spent, for your peace of mind if nothing else.

  4. Elmi

    This was quite informative, thanks for the post.

  5. Duncan Long

    I am bothered by the question of whether or not the owner of the copyrighted cartoon dog at the top of your post gave permission for 1) the artwork to be painted onto the fence, and 2) for it to be used in this blog. Copyright is copyright, after all.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point, Duncan, thanks. I was so charmed by the drawing of Brian the dog I forgot about that. I’ve swapped it out for an equally amusing photos.

      • Duncan Long

        Being a book illustrator, I’m likely overly sensitive to these things, and I didn’t aim to browbeat you quite as much as I did. And not long ago I posted stuff willy nilly. But having a few things “borrowed” or getting into tiffs over use of material has made me more sensitive to such issues.

        In the end, the more we can do to promote both knowledge both of fair use laws as well as the areas where copyright apply will help all creative people and perhaps even save the publishing industry which for some is under siege as their books get distributed illegally all across the bit-torrent sites… but I suppose that’s another subject altogether.

        Wishing you a great day!

        • Joel Friedlander

          I didn’t take it as “browbeating” Duncan, rather as a gentle reminder. I’ve written many posts here about copyright, so I appreciate it.

  6. Austin Briggs

    Hi Joel, why would you say that the “new” publisher would be more attuned to readers and more concerned with authors? The fundamental nature of publishing doesn’t change; it’s still a business.

    What would drive this change?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Austin, the rising leverage of authors and other content creators now that there is a viable choice to use publishers or to publish oneself. Before, there was no incentive. Now, I believe there will be, and that both the market and the content creators will begin to demand better treatment.

  7. Victoria Mixon

    But who won the fight over whether or not you published the uncopyrightable book?

    • Joel Friedlander

      There was no fight. I published the book with my own copyright on it, but limited to “new material,” which was my introduction to the essays I had selected. We both knew that no matter what it said on the copyright page, there was no copyright on the book, nor was one possible.

    • John Soares

      Yeah Joel. Don’t leave us hanging. I hope you stood up to the big bully…

      • Joel Friedlander

        Sorry I wasn’t more clear, John. When I got the call I had already published the book. I never heard from them again.

  8. Ryan Bradshaw

    Joel –

    Good article. I worked in retail for many years and never had much luck as a consumer with extended warranties. This is an almost pure profit product for the retail establishment. Most of the folks will forget they bought it, or loose the information about it, or (in my case) if you do make a claim the repair company is going to perform a “quick fix” and send it back to you. I never had a situation like you with the book, but glad you were able to stand your ground and call the publisher out. Justice!


  9. Michael N. Marcus

    Your tale about Peter Ouspensky reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s song about famous Russian mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky.

    Satirist Lehrer claimed that the secret of Lobachevsky’s success was to
    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
    So don’t shade your eyes,
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
    Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.”


    Also, some of the most proficient liars promote the packages of self-publishing companies. They offer “free books,” which are free only if the author ignores the thousands of dollars that must be paid before the freebies are printed.

    Michael N. Marcus
    https://www.GoodBadAndUglyBooks.com (reviews of books for writers)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750


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