Copyright law and mistakes in text.
April 28, 2004 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm proofreading an OCR file of a 25-year-old book, and after I fixed it up the company (whose history it is) said I had to put back in all the original (non-OCR) mistakes (words spelled wrong, incorrect tenses, text inconsistencies, semicolons used miserably) for copyright reasons. I told them it's their copyright, and they can do whatever they want with it. No, they say, it's a historical record. It's also their money, so I'll do whatever they want . . . but are they right? Are misspelled words and poor punctuation a copyright issue?

I ask this just out of curiousity. (That's one of the words they made me put back in.)
posted by LeLiLo to Law & Government (19 answers total)
 
So your client believes that anytime a work is revised in any way, the revised piece goes into the public domain?

If true, that is a dark cloud in the otherwise silver lining that is the Scooby-Doo franchise. Just to name one frightening implication.

I am not a copyright lawyer, by the way, just a straight-thinking guy from the heartland.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:06 PM on April 28, 2004


Yeah, I'd be curious to hear the "copyright reasons." Like you said, if they created it and own it they can do whatever they want to it. There might be journalistic or publishing standards that compel them to add a disclaimer saying that the work has been edited from its original form for typographic or other technical errors. But that's not a legal issue.

If they are licensing someone else's copyrighted work, they may only have the right to reproduce the work and not the right to make a derivative work. In that case, though, refusing to correct typos and punctuation would be an overly formalistic application of the term "derivative work." Either way it would be strange for the original copyright holder to tell your company that he doesn't want you to fix his typos.
posted by PrinceValium at 2:06 PM on April 28, 2004


ssF: As a 25-year-old work, it's still under the original copyright. Whether or not the term will reset if the typos are fixed, I'm not sure. But thanks to Sonny Bono and the 7-2 Supreme Court majority, copyright protection is essentially perpetual. Either way it will not fall into the public domain until long after your grandchildren have joined you underground.
posted by PrinceValium at 2:10 PM on April 28, 2004


don't people use typos etc to track the source of texts? maybe they have copyright to a particular version and want to leave these pecularities in the text as evidence, so that if anyone challenges their right they can demonstrate lineage. or, alternatively, they can use the same trick to identify illegal copies of their work.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:17 PM on April 28, 2004


What you are creating is a new work. There is no reason for the old copyright to apply to the new work. If you fix the typos, just put a new copyright on it. They may want the mistikes too remain, but there reason can't have nothing to do with copyright.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:32 PM on April 28, 2004


Do you have to "put a new copyright" on something? I'd always understood the little "c" to be superfluous, that if I draw a stick figure in the sand at the beach, BOOM, that's copyrighted, by the act of creation. I thought it was trademarks and patents that have to go through some formal process to apply.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 3:18 PM on April 28, 2004


if they are paying you.. do it. unless you don't want to, then quit the job.
posted by Frasermoo at 3:38 PM on April 28, 2004


stupidsexyFlanders: You don't have to formally copyright anything, you're right. But your sand-stick figure man is not copyrightable -- to be protected by copyright an item must be in a "fixed medium".
posted by o2b at 3:56 PM on April 28, 2004


IAMNAL by any means, but I'm fairly sure one will appear and tell us that alterations to a copyrighted item do not invalidate the original copyright.

When you see a phrase such as "copyright 2000, 2002-2004", the latter dates indicate the years the item changed. Whether a new origination date (for the purpose of determining expiration) is imposed, I don't know. I doubt it.

There may be other reasons besides copyright to avoid fixing the errors in the original draft. Like andrew cooke said, sometimes the typos are used to determine which version is being used. The CIA is said to insert random typos for this very reason -- if a Top Secret report is leaked, they can check for typos (or word order unique to that copy) to see which copy of the report leaked, and hopefully find who leaked it.

While not all that old, they may also want to compare the word usage and spelling conventions to modern usage and conventions, just to track the changes in language.
posted by o2b at 4:03 PM on April 28, 2004


Like most legal questions this is very fact specific.

alterations to a copyrighted item do not invalidate the original copyright.

True. What you are most likely doing is creating a derivative work. Creating derivatives is an exclusive right of the copyright owner.

I'm not sure what you mean by "whose history it is." Discussing copyright issues any further is pretty futile without knowing more about what is meant by "history."
posted by anathema at 5:31 PM on April 28, 2004


I'm not sure what you mean by "whose history it is." Discussing copyright issues any further is pretty futile without knowing more about what is meant by "history."

I read this as the book being a history of the company, most likely originally written in house or commissioned by the company (the company usually holds the copyright on these kind of deals).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 5:44 PM on April 28, 2004


Sorry that was unclear, anathema. As PST says, It's a first-50-year history of the company (now celebrating its 75th anniversary, so they're looking back at the good old days). Just about the first thing on the manuscript is a big notice that says "© 1979, The So-and-So Company."

alterations to a copyrighted item do not invalidate the original copyright.


IM(definitely)NAL, but that's what I thought. Thanks.

While not all that old, they may also want to compare the word usage and spelling conventions to modern usage and conventions, just to track the changes in language.

I don't think they're spelling conventions, o2b, I just think nobody proofread the thing back in 1979.
posted by LeLiLo at 5:54 PM on April 28, 2004


So...if you're a proofreader, what are they actually paying you to do?
posted by bingo at 6:47 PM on April 28, 2004


If corrections harm or fail to maintain copyright, why on earth are there second, third, fourth, etc, editions of books?
posted by plinth at 7:09 PM on April 28, 2004


So...if you're a proofreader, what are they actually paying you to do?

I guess that's part of the problem, bingo; it never was exactly clear. When I deal with corporations (including this one) I do all sorts of different things — proofreading, editing, writing (grants and otherwise), designing newsletters, also some photography. In this case I technically was hired to correct the OCR flaws, but it seemed to make sense also to clean up the text. And my contact at the company agreed, without asking his boss(es). He and I didn't stop to think that sometimes big organizations don't make sense.

The powers that be seem worried that the 'historical record' will be distorted if anything is changed in the original. I thought that sentences like "He were the director in 1932." maybe should be fixed.

But, like Frasermoo says (and which I mentioned originally), it's their money. I did think their excuse that we couldn't violate copyright seemed lame, which many of the people above seem to agree with. Thanks again for the responses, all.

p.s. It was kind of fun to go through the document and tell the spell check that yes, I wanted it to include words like 'accomodation' and 'asymetry.' Never did anything like that before.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:47 PM on April 28, 2004


Copyright exists in a work from the moment the work is created. Registration is necessary before you can sue for copyright. Now, often that isn't a problem, because you can just file an expedited registration and then turn around and sue a few hours later. But the law gives you special advantages if you register your work before you publish it, or at least register it soon after you publish it. Notably, those advantages include the potential to sue for much more money than would otherwise be possible.

I can think of only three reasons for their attitude here:

1) They did not want to go through the administrative hassle of having to file a new copyright registration. (But if they were planning on publishing the OCR'd file, they'd have to register that anyway).

2) Perhaps lelilo is not a full-time employee at the company, but instead was a contractor. This raises issues of ownership over the new work lelilo created. But this could be resolved by adding something to lelilo's contract.

3) Like managers across this great country of ours, lelilo's managers have no good reason and decided to blame their dumb policy on the lawyers. Or, they don't understand copyright law. Either way.
posted by profwhat at 9:00 PM on April 28, 2004


Perhaps lelilo is not a full-time employee at the company, but instead was a contractor. This raises issues of ownership over the new work lelilo created. But this could be resolved by adding something to lelilo's contract.

I get the impression that lelilo is a contractor and that this is on a "work-for-hire" basis. Just my impression.

The powers that be seem worried that the 'historical record' will be distorted if anything is changed in the original. I thought that sentences like "He were the director in 1932." maybe should be fixed.

As you said, hey, it's their money. And if they want to spend it and still look stupid...
posted by Vidiot at 9:27 PM on April 28, 2004


I'm pretty sure this is a simple case of corporate idiocy. Some idiot said "Hey, if we change the words, uh, doesn't that screw up the copyright?" and some other (brownnosing or just plain agreeable) idiot said "Right, JB!" and they told you to put it back the way it was. I deal with this sort of thing all the time. No reason to look for legal intricacies.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on April 29, 2004


Perhaps lelilo is not a full-time employee at the company, but instead was a contractor. . . / . . . I get the impression that lelilo is a contractor and that this is on a "work-for-hire" basis.

Exactly right; I should have mentioned that specifically. There never was any chance of the copyright going to me. Actually, more and more it sounds like the ‘official’ company proofreader, irked that I got hired from outside to do the job, started all the fuss about my changes.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:10 PM on April 29, 2004


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