Everybody's Libraries

October 7, 2011

My mother’s orphan

Filed under: copyright,findingada,online books,open access,people,preservation,sharing,teaching — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 5:06 pm

Before my mother was pregnant with me, she was working on a book.

The book had begun its gestation at least a year before. She had been teaching math in Massachusetts, and was involved with the Madison Project, one of the initiatives that arose from the “new math” movement of the 1960s.  What excited her, and what I caught from her not long after I was born, was the sense of discovery and play that was encouraged in the Madison teaching style.  The primary focus wasn’t so much on imparting and drilling facts and rules, or on mundane applications, but on finding patterns, solving puzzles, and figuring out the secrets of numbers and geometry and the other mathematical constructs that underlie our world. Some project participants planned a series of books that would help bring out this sense of discovery and exploration in math classes.

Two small children in the house may have delayed my mother’s ambitions, but we didn’t stop her.  When I was in kindergarten, the piles of papers in my parents’ bedroom went away, and my mother proudly showed me her new book.  The book, Discoveries in Essential Mathematics, was co-written with Ramon Steinen, and published by Charles E. Merrill. Though the textbook was written for middle schoolers, I remember reading through the book after my mother showed it to me, solving the simpler problems, and smiling when I saw my name or my sister’s in an example.

She got small royalty checks for a few years, but the book was out of print by the late 1970s, never reaching a second edition.  We kept some copies in our basement, but I didn’t know of any library that held it.  When I visited the Library of Congress as a middle schooler, wrongly convinced that they had every book ever published, I remember my disappointment when I couldn’t find Mom’s book in their card catalog.

My mother eventually retired from teaching, and the enthusiasm and talent I’d gotten from Mom for math shifted into computing, and then into digital libraries.  And when my kids reached school age, I decided to try putting her book online.  In an era of large classes, detailed state standards, and high-stakes standardized tests, it might not be a viable standard textbook any more, but I think it’s still great for curious kids who show an interest in math.

Mom thought that was a great idea.  But she didn’t know if she could grant permission on her own.  Although long out of print, the book’s copyright had automatically renewed in 2000 under US copyright law, and she wasn’t sure if she had to get the consent of her publisher or co-author before she could give me the go-ahead. She didn’t know how to reach her co-author, and her old imprint was long gone.  Even its acquirer had itself been acquired by a large conglomerate some time ago.  So I let the idea drop, thinking I’d come back to it later when I had a little time to research the copyright.

But not long after, she started a long slide into dementia, and was soon in no position to give permission to anyone.  If her book had been practically an “orphan work” before, due to uncertainty over rights, it was even more so now.  There was no trouble locating the author; but no way of getting valid permission from someone definitely known to hold the rights.

Mom died this past winter, four years after my Dad had reluctantly moved her into the nursing home for good, and four weeks after he’d made his usual daily visit, gone back home, and had a fatal heart attack.  After we paid the last of the bills, and threw out the contents of the basement (where a burst pipe ruined all the books, papers, and other things they kept down there), what remained of what they had would now go to me and my siblings.

I still had a copy at home of the teacher’s edition of Mom’s book that she had once given to Grandma.  And between my mother’s funeral and the burst pipe, I’d taken a student edition out of their basement for my kids to read.  But any faint hope of finding publishing contracts or rights assignment documents was obliterated after the pipe burst.  The basic questions were: had Mom signed her rights to the book away, as many academic authors do? If so, had she gotten them back at some point?  Or had she never had the rights in the first place, as sometimes happens with textbook authors under “work for hire” contracts?

The copyright page of the book, and the record in the 1972 Catalog of Copyright Entries, show the publisher as the copyright claimant, so I couldn’t assume she had the rights.   But I also doubted whether I could get a clear answer, or reasonable licensing terms, from the company that had eventually acquired the assets of Mom’s original publisher.

I eventually found what I needed to know on a trip to Washington, DC.  While attending a meeting on digital format registries, I realized that I was in the same building as the Copyright Office.   So after the meeting, I got a reader’s card, went upstairs, and consulted the librarians there.  We confirmed that, under the automatic renewal laws of the time, the copyright to Mom’s book would have reverted in 2000 to whoever had been declared the “author” in the book in the original registration record.   Moreover, in the absence of any contrary arrangement, any co-owner of a copyright can authorize publication, as long as they split any proceeds with the other copyright owners.

Since I was planning just to put the book online for free, the only question remaining was: who was listed as the author on the original registration: the publisher who claimed the copyright, or my mother and Dr. Steinen?  It’s not clear from the Catalog of Copyright Entries, but the original registration certificate would state it.  And the one copy known to exist of that certificate was in the archives of the Copyright Office where I was sitting.

Twenty minutes later, I had the certificate in front of me.  The name on the “claimant” line was indeed the publisher’s, but the names on the “author” line were Steinen and Ockerbloom.  My mother’s orphan was mine to claim.

There are a lot more books out there like hers.  Since I added records for Hathi Trust‘s public domain books to The Online Books Page, I’ve gotten requests to curate hundreds of out of print, largely forgotten books that are still meaningful to readers online.  Many of the people who opt to leave contact information  live in places where  books tend to be hard to get or pay for. Many others, judging from their names, seem to be related to the authors of the books they suggest. These readers have found the books after Hathi, or Google, or the Internet Archive, has resurfaced them online, and the readers want these books to live on.  If there were an easy, inexpensive, uncontroversially legal way to also bring back books that are still in copyright, but no longer commercially exploited, I’m sure I could fulfill a lot of requests for those books too.

For now, though, I’ll bring back the one orphan book I’ve been given. And I thank my mother for writing it, and the other women and men who have poured so much of their energy and teaching into their books, and the librarians of all kinds who help ensure those books stay accessible to readers who value them.  I’ll try my best to keep your legacies alive.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this meaningful and personal story that so clearly describes some of the issues involving orphan works. Well done! And a firm pat on the back for caring about a book your mother wrote years back.

    Comment by Kurt — December 9, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

  2. Awesome! No link to the book at the end of the story?

    Comment by s — January 1, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  3. The online version of the book isn’t ready yet, but I’ll post a followup when it is.

    Comment by John Mark Ockerbloom — January 1, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

  4. hi, great story. I look forward to the book too. btw, google’s locked up the book: http://books.google.com/books/about/Discoveries_in_essential_mathematics.html?id=V8nGAAAACAAJ

    Comment by Andrew Meit — April 9, 2012 @ 6:26 pm


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