Copyright Law for Philosophers

Or “Please, for the love of God, don’t get us sued; their legal department is bigger than our press.”
Intellectual property law is a gnarly topic, one that, seeing as I’m not a lawyer, I shouldn’t even be playing with—but, since keeping the Press from getting sued is part of my job, I do anyway.  Figuring out who owns how much of what where and for how long is about the greatest international cluster@#$€ ever, and, if you screw it up, you get to settle it in a neutral country that’s a whole lot closer to the foreign publisher you were supposed to get English language rights from, but only got the US rights, so when your book got sold in Canada via a Michigan-based wholesaler . . .

You see how this gets really complicated really fast.

The good news is, most people don’t ever have to deal with copyright law beyond their own contracts.  You sign over your rights, we agree to pay you royalties and such and fight off the plagiarists, and everyone goes on their merry way.  Fair use doctrine covers all your quotes, and we really, really hope you didn’t willfully and wantonly plagiarize anything—though, if you did, may God have mercy on your soul.  We won’t defend you, we’ll certainly disown your books, and, seeing as you’ve sullied our all-important reputation and violated a few clauses of our contract, we might just have grounds to sue you as well.

Whatever else you do, don’t plagiarize.

Happily, that’s not usually a problem.  What is a problem is getting rights for articles and pictures owned by someone else, even if they’re by you, and English language/American publishing rights.  The former we leave up to the author (okay, really, we put the author under contractual obligation to secure the rights), but very thoroughly check afterwards.  Don’t think we’ll let that one little “detail” slide.  Yes, someone will care about it, and yes, they can sue us.  Even if you wrote that article yourself, you signed over the rights when you published it, and now you have to secure them.

Foreign and translation rights can be just Satanic, since you’re dealing with multiple countries systems of law, the Bern treaty, and various other things that, according to the contract that’s written in French, can only be adjudicated in a Swiss courtroom.  The translation copyright is owned by one person, who sold it to another, who’s from San Marino and works at the Vatican, but he gave us permission, in principle, to publish it once we have English publication rights secured, but the German publisher wants us to have the translation in hand, so we have to own the translation before we can get the rights to publish it, and how long does the author have to be dead before it enters the public domain anyway?*

Needless to say, it can get complicated.  Just keep in mind that the rights to the translation are not the same as the rights to publish the translation, and half the battle is understood.  As for the rest . . . well, there’s a reason I’m often in the law library trying to figure out how to deal with medieval critical editions.**

*70 years from death of the translator, or 95 years after publication if there are multiple translators.  Since the copyright is going to be registered in the US, the citizenship of the translator is probably not going to be an issue—well, not for the book, that is.
**Strangely enough, critical editions aren’t considered derivative works, since the text itself is realized from public domain manuscripts.  Since nothing new has been added that wasn’t already in some manuscript or other (or couldn’t at least be inferred), the actual text can’t be copyrighted.  The critical apparatus that lets you know which manuscript says what, however, is new, and is subject to copyright protection.  Thus, if someone’s translating from a critical edition released in 2011, there’s no legal need to seek permission, so long as quotations from the critical apparatus and notes are kept within the guidelines of fair use.  Happily, medievalists are a pretty unlitigious and apolitical bunch, so the risk of them taking legal notice of the fact that the law is royally unfair to them is unlikely.

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