When I wanted to suddenly dive into Jeeves and Wooster after nearly 10 years (damn you, Charles Stross!), the first place I looked was Project Gutenberg.
Where there was a suspicious dearth of Jeeves books. Or, indeed, a drought of Wodehouse works in general. Strange, since he was a most productive writer, with over 90 books alone to his name, and many more short stories. And there are so many Jeeves fans in the world, and so many of them are lit geeks—including Isaac Asimov—it’s practically a given that, were it legal, his works would have been scanned and proofed into Project Gutenberg long since its inception in 1989.
Not a good sign for those interested in creating eBooks for public domain Wodehouse works.
Copyright has always been a thorny issue. Not only does the length that copyright holds vary by country, but the ending criteria differ. Even within the same country, copyright laws have changed multiple times.
What does it mean? It means that many of Wodehouse’s works are not public domain in most countries, despite many of said works having been in existence for what most people think is “long enough” for copyright to expire. It also means that which works are public domain and which are not vary by the country you’re currently in.
Some examples of Wodehouseian copyrights in various countries:
All of Wodehouse’s works are still under copyright in Canada, where (as of this writing) copyright expiration is 50 years after death of author. P. G. Wodehouse died in 1975; the first time any of his works will be public domain in Canada is February 14th, 2025.
Note that it doesn’t matter what the publication date of the work is; it could have been a pre-1910 short story, and it would still only expire in Canada in 2025.
All of Wodehouse’s works are still under copyright in the United Kingdom, where (as of this writing) copyright expiration is 70 years after death of author. The first time his works will be public domain in the U.K. is February 14th, 2045.
Ditto if your country is a member of the European Union.
Whereas if you live in the Republic of Seychelles, all of Wodehouse’s works have been public domain since Valentine’s Day, 2000—copyright expires a mere 25 years after death of author.
So what about the United States? The answer: it varies.
Wodehouse’s work published before 1923 has no copyright in the U.S. Which is why My Man Jeeves, published in 1915 in the U.K., is public domain in the U.S. and a very few other countries.
His other work may or may not still be under a copyright that will not expire until 95 years after its first publication in the U.S.
So what’s the “may or may not” for? That’s because for works published between 1923 and 1977, copyright had to be renewed before expiration. Sometimes people forgot, or perhaps wanted their copyrights to expire in due time rather than padding on more years; only 10% of such copyrights were renewed.
Thanks to the efforts of Project Gutenberg, Distributed Proofreaders, and Stanford University, the Copyright Renewal Database was born. It’s a resource for those of us trying to find books published between 1923 and 1977 that fell into public domain; if your target doesn’t turn up in this database, it’s public domain.
What does the Copyright Renewal Database say for Wodehouse?
Fortunately for public domain, if not for the Wodehouse estate, a few (very very few) Wodehouse books fell through the “cracks” so to speak. This is the reason why Right Ho, Jeeves is public domain in the U.S. while Carry on, Jeeves is not, despite both being published after 1923.
And this is why so little of Wodehouse’s work is present in, or even eligible for, Project Gutenberg.
For the record, I respect copyright. I am happy when copyright protects the work of a living author. I am happy when it covers their funeral costs and bereavement of their surviving relatives. I begin to worry about 25 years after the original creator is dead, though. But that’s just me. If Wodehouse wanted to extend his copyrights, which he apparently did since most of the renewals were in the 1950’s, I have nothing to say against that.
More links and resources:
- Project Gutenberg
- Wodehouse’s work at Project Gutenberg
- Marie Lebert’s article on the history of Project Gutenberg, from which the copyright renewal information above was drawn
- Wikipedia: length of copyrights in various countries, do not depend on this as a conclusive legal resource
- Copyright Renewal Database over at Stanford.edu
- Distributed Proofreaders—it’s easy to join in the effort to preserve written works, in multiple languages, for the world
- U.S. Copyright Office
- Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works—the closest thing to an International Copyright Law
- Brad Templeton’s 10 Big Myths about copyright explained
- Electronic Frontier Foundation’s battle against the DMCA
- Creative Commons—an alternative to copyright for your works
- Cory Doctorow on Creative Commons