Copyright and Wodehouse: The Suspicious Desert of Gutenberg Texts

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?

Search Results

92 results found.
Modify search | Search within results | Printer friendly | Download
Renewal Id Title Author Registration Number  
RE173174
Bertie Wooster sees it through.
P. G. Wodehouse [i.e. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
A177720
Long record
RE138400
Jeeves and the feudal spirit.
P. G. Wodehouse [i.e. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
AI-4370
Long record
RE099036
The Return of Jeeves.
P. G. Wodehouse [i.e. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
A134807
Long record

… and it goes on for 7 straight pages of this …

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:

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9 thoughts on “Copyright and Wodehouse: The Suspicious Desert of Gutenberg Texts

  1. The issue is still not clear to me. I want to write a story featuring Wodehouse characters like Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, aunt Delia, Lord Emsworth and others. This story would be original. Will I be violating copyright in India?

    • Ashok, I have no definite idea. This is totally not an official legal resource for such things. According to Wikipedia, the copyright length for India is currently end of life + 60 years, so the answer is likely that you’d be violating copyright until the year 2035, barring any law changes in India.

      However, be wary; franchise names can be… trademarked, or some such weirdness, and those often operate under different laws. This veers into the realm of legal advice I cannot offer at all.

      • You might just be in violation of the character’s copyright. If a character is substantial enough, e.g., Wooster, you will have to wait until 75 years after Wodehouse’s death. The question is, is the character substantial. Jeeves is another matter. There the question is, has the name gone into the public domain? It may have. Check out a copyright lawyer or the site itself.

  2. I’m 1000% in agreement that copyrights after death are ridiculous!! (I agree with you 10 times over!). In fact, given that patents used to last only 17 years, which have true societal utilitarian, practical, & economic value, giving copyrights so long is silly I’d say 25 years is sufficient in total from publication!

    Major corporate interests dictated the terms of Congress’s U.S. Copyright revision (along with greedy authors)– and truly screwed over the reding public and expansion of literate tastes. It made pre-1923 works public domain, but gave in to powerful interests, by bottling up just about everything else! What a shame! Just think of the explosion of reading in this new electronic era had Plum’s corpus been freely available in ebook format along with scores of other mid-century authors!

  3. So THIS is why I haven’t been able to locate Leave it to Psmith on projectguetenborg.org! Thank you for this article, very helpful! I just love Leave it to Psmith! My favorite.

  4. Part of the problem of using characters will also depend on how much of your work is derivative. Again, check all this with a copyright lawyer. It’s a very sticky and complicated issue. The court rulings are a bit of a legal maze.

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