Meera Nair

Publishing from the Public Domain

In Posts on October 2, 2010 at 10:19 am

Last week disappeared in a flurry of grant application work; that nerve-wracking dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s, all done while holding my breath. Normal breathing has not yet resumed, but I am hopeful for next week. To facilitate the calming process I sought refuge in Empire and Communication by Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952). His original work was engaging to the eye – the body of printed text was set on large pages, with wide margins where tantalizing notes challenged the reader to figure out the obscure connection. (Sadly, that edition has been out of print for years.) E&C recently appeared on the market again; even though the format was not preserved I happily bought the book.

Yet the following notice came as a surprise:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for the purposes of review), without the prior written permission of … Permission to photocopy should be requested from Access Copyright.

Statements like this are frustrating. Granted, publishers have no obligation to educate readers about fair dealing, but this notice projects the aura of speaking the law and propagates the belief that copyright is a grant of absolute control. Whereas in this case, even the “All rights reserved” is faulty. The little c in the circle is dated to 2007. Yet Innis died in 1952. Given that the work was first published prior to his death, the term of copyright would have lasted for fifty years after the calendar year of Innis’ death. All of Innis’ published works entered the public domain on January 1, 2003.

The recent publication does contain a new introduction and that work should be held to copyright. Either to the author or to the publisher, depending on the terms of agreement between the two parties. But in either case, while the bundle of rights that comprise copyright are extensive, copyright owners do not have the right to unilaterally forbid fair dealing.

For those interested, Creative Commons Canada provides a very nice flowchart to guide questions of copyright duration. And Project Gutenberg Canada has an impressive collection of works which are of public domain status in Canada, including some of the works of Harold Adams Innis.

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