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1) Some books are published by more than one publisher. For example, if you go to Amazon or Flipkart and search for 'The Interpretation of Dreams' by Sigmund Freud, you will see many of them from different publishers. I used to think that once you give your book to a publisher, that publisher owns the exclusive copyright to that work.

2) If some book is in the public domain, can you make a small change to it and issue the modified version under your own copyright? I know one guy who did that to an old book. For example, there's a book named 'As a Man Thinketh' by James Allen, and there are many versions of it from different publishers, all of whom have made only a small change or two to the text and have issued it under their own copyright. I have read more than 3 different versions of this book from different publishers, and spotted that there are only minor differences (less than 10 words have been changed in the entire work). What's going on?

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You should probably review your understanding of copyright. In most cases, copyright is retained by the author. The author only contracts publishing rights to the publishers. Publishers who ask for the copyright are, generally, considered to be pretty unethical (they're essentially saying that THEY wrote the book). –  Kate Sherwood Dec 13 '11 at 1:24
    
@Kate: That's pretty different from most other industries. In the music industry, and I believe also in film and TV, the publisher (music label) owns the copyrights to the entire work. The writer of the song may get writer's credit and receive additional royalties for that. But the work is ultimately owned by the label, and only they can dictate who can reproduce/copy/use the work; likewise with photos and graphics that are commissioned for the album. –  Lèse majesté Dec 16 '11 at 9:01
    
I don't know about other industries, but would speculate that the difference may be in the amount of control/investment the publisher puts into the creation of the work. The acceptable exceptions to the 'writer holds the copyright' rule (that I'm aware of) involve things written to order, written as part of a popular, multi-author series, etc. In other words, times when the publisher had a lot of input into the original creative process. These may be more analogous to the way things are written in other creative industries. –  Kate Sherwood Dec 16 '11 at 10:30
    
Note, though, that holding copyright doesn't mean the writer controls sales completely - they sell exclusive rights for a period of time, generally. So while the writer is under contract to the publisher, the publisher has control over the things you mention (reproduction, sales, etc.). The difference is that, unless the author has signed a very restrictive contract, the rights eventually revert back to the author. –  Kate Sherwood Dec 16 '11 at 10:34
    
@Kate: Yea, I think there are a range of different contracts in each industry. In the recording industry, the norm is this way probably because of the cost of artist development and promotion. And also there's a tradition dating from way back of labels exploiting artists, and they still haven't broken completely free of that. –  Lèse majesté Dec 16 '11 at 17:15

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In answer to the first question, you need to keep in mind that each book has different terms that are negotiated between the writer and the publisher. In some cases, the publisher will purchase first print rights or first US print rights. This means that they have the right to publish the works before anyone else. Generally, once this has happened, there is a set term during which the publisher has exclusive rights to the book.

After those terms have been satisfied, the author may choose to revoke or reclaim rights to the book. In that case, the author is free to submit the book to another publisher. Also, if the original publisher was granted first US print rights, then the author is free to submit to foreign publishers (the UK counts as foreign) and obtain a publishing contract there as well. It is not uncommon for a book to be published in different countries by different publishers.

Once the book has passed over into the public domain, then any publisher can choose to publish the book and make it available to readers. This is by far the most common means by which multiple publishers end up publishing the same book. If a publisher believes they have a unique opportunity to publish and promote an older book that is in the public domain, then it may be worth their time and effort to publish it.

Now to respond to your second question. Technically, the answer is yes. However, while it may be legal, technically, I would see this as unethical. If the book is published with the same title and credits the same author, then there is really no foul because the author is still getting credit. The publisher reaps the benefits of the author's reputation and get rewarded for investing the time and money to promote that author.

If the publisher chooses to keep the same title, basically all the same content, and then publishes the book under a different name, then that is where the ethical questions come into play. Just adding or modifying a few words or even a few chapters does not truly constitute a new book, and as such does not entitle the new "author" to lay claim to the full body of work. If the new author chooses to acknowledge the previous author and provides a disclaimer that this is a derivative work based on the previous efforts of the original author, then that would be considered acceptable.

The examples you gave were most likely a case of the publishers choosing to take advantage of the original author's reputation. They may have changed a few words either to improve the interpretation or enhance the work (in their opinion). Ultimately, as long as they provide proper attribution to the original author, this is still acceptable.

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Thanks very much. Since the time I posted this question, my knowledge of copyrights has significantly been added to. –  Sathyaish May 30 '12 at 19:39

A book can also be published by more than one publisher at the same time, generally for different countries. Where there are substantial parts of the book that are non-text, colour prints, for example, the costs can be shared and printing costs saved.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edition_(book)#Co-edition

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  1. It depends significantly on what terms the work was published under. It is fairly common for different publishers to be listed for the same book in different markets; a common split is one publisher for US versions of the work, and another publisher for the UK version. Updated versions of the book may also be published differently than the original edition. Many times publishers also make deals among themselves (or the publishers are owned by the same parent entity) and so a book published under exclusive rights may still be published by different publishers.

  2. Yes. This is a very important part of public domain, specifically derivative works. You can make minor or major changes to something in the public domain and re-release it under your own copyright. The copyright only applies to the specific changes or additions you have made to the work, not the entire work. Eg. Hamlet is in the public domain, and cannot be copyrighted. An annotated version of Hamlet with an index can be copyrighted, but the only the index and annotations would would be considered under copyright, not all of Hamlet.

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Thank you very much indeed. Your answer is very helpful. –  Sathyaish May 30 '12 at 19:39

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