Friday, May 22, 2009

Securing Rights to Old Technical Manuals

Dear Rich: There are a set of old specialty technical manuals from the '40s, '50s, to mid-late '60s published by Theo Audel for the construction trades. I tracked down who bought out Theo Audel publishers and contacted them and they'd sold the rights to some small, never heard of before, computer tech manual publisher. I called them, and they have no interest, on any level, for any purpose, of re-publishing/printing these old books. They told me that it was outside their purview. When I asked them to release, or sell the rights, they said no. As a small-time author, I can indeed appreciate the desire to protect one's ownership rights. However, these books are highly specialized, and the information once provided by them is now lost to history. I have in fact contacted other industry-specific publishers, a trade union publisher, and none are interested in seeking to reprint these books. Their response is typical -- just too costly to be of fiscal benefit to the bottom line. What would it take to get them reprinted for use in today's marketplace? And please don't tell me "too bad, just deal with it." I'm so glad you asked (although the Dear Rich staff is upset that you think we would answer your question in a such a flippant manner.) In answer to your question, there are a  few things to consider. First, it's very possible that the manuals are in the public domain. If the manuals were published before 1964 and the publisher failed to renew the copyrights, then you don't need to ask permission. (Only about 11 percent of copyrights issued before 1964 were renewed.) The renewal must have been made during the 28th year after first publication, so a book published in 1940 would have been renewed in 1968. If the renewal occurred after 1977, you can check online Copyright Office records. For books renewed before 1978, you should check the Stanford database of book renewal records, a handy resource. There are a few other choices for your copyright search. You can search the pre-1978 records yourself, or pay the copyright office to search (check out Circular 22), or pay a professional copyright searcher to obtain the records. 
Why so proprietary if it's in the Public Domain?
If the manuals are in the public domain, you may wonder why the owners are being so proprietary. That's often because they either don't know the status, or they do and they're attempting to leverage their "ownership." The Dear Rich staff ran into a similar problem a few years ago with the "owner" of some 1930s cartoons resulting in a nominal fee being paid (not the exorbitant fee being requested) in order to acquire a good digital version of the original work for reproduction. All this effort may not be necessary once the Google Settlement is finalized, since Google plans to digitize and display every word ever placed into print. (Some newer Audel manuals are already available.) Anyway, we're not sure why the companies think that publishing these manuals is cost-prohibitive. Guess they've never heard of POD.