Who owns the right to medieval or ancient writings?

Who owns the rights to ancient or medieval writings, i.e. the works of Shakespeare, Homer, or Dante? If nobody owns them, couldn’t I write my own version of them at will? Could I rewrite The Illiad so the Trojan War was fought over a lifetime supply of trojan condoms, just because nobody from Homer’s family is alive to stop me? What’s up with that?

Original (or copied) texts of ancient works are owned by whoever possesses them.

The content of ancient works are in the public domain, meaning that you could, indeed, rewrite them to your heart’s content. (Many have already been modernized, re-worked, or had their titles or themes stolen for the use of modern writers. (Look at all the myriad retellings of the story of King Arthiur or even of the Three Musketeers.)

Translations of ancient works are considered to be new works of the translators and are generally protected by current (and currently expanding) copyright laws.

What about the Bible? Although it is a translated work, the English version has been around for 500-600 years. So I could take the Christian Bible and re-write it to permit homosexuality and masturbation?

Evil lightbulb in head

Sure. Knock yourself out. Go nuts.

Works out of copyright are in the public domain. No one owns them. It used to be the purpose of the copyright law to increase the human intellectual capital. The original US copyright law was for 14 years, renewable once for another 14 years. This gave the author a reasonable period for a return on his works and then the works enter the public domain. The constitution says only that copyright shall be for a limited period and the supreme court has said that as long as it is limited in some way, it can be for as long as congress decrees. Since Congress keeps extending the period, almost nothing done since about 1930 is out of copyright and may never be. Of course, nearly all these works are owned by corporations and so is congress.

By the way, Shakespeare did not live in the medieval era, which ended in the mid-1300s. He was 250 years after that, during the Renaissance era.

However, translations of texts that are in the public domain can be copyrighted, such as translations of the Bible, Homer, or even translating Chaucer from Middle English to Modern English.

One of the better philosophical arguments against the Sonny Bono Act.

Anything originally published in the U.S. before 1923 is out of copyright.

Actually, there are thousands of motion pictures and television episodes, and thousands of newspaper and magazine issues published between 1923-1963 that have fallen into the public domain when the copyright owners failed to renew the copyright.

Nitpick : The usual date for the end of the medieval era is 1492, not the mid-1300s. Sometimes, 1453 (fall of Constantinople) is used intead.

And just to complicate matters, we English-literature geek types tend to use 1485 (accession of the first Tudor monarch). It goes without saying that all of these dates are thoroughly arbitrary.

I don’t know if you can claim its an accurate translation though - I’d hope that deliberately mistranslating something with malicious intent, and selling it as accurate, was illegal somehow.

Exactly right. What’s more, there are a number of very good works which will never be reprinted or otherwise see the light of day because they are in copyright hell, such as the cult horror classic novel “Lets Go Play At the Adams’”. The fans would LOVE to see a reissue, but the people who own the copyright don’t care, so the work languishes. Happens surprisingly often.

As copyright law is now written, it is actually a barrier to intellectual and cultural enrichment. Check out Japan for a situation where laxer copyright laws allow much more creativity and general goodness.

Fourteen used copies are available right now at Amazon.com, starting at $8.95. Another copy is on sale at eBay. The public library in my medium-sized city has three copies. The library at the local university also has a copy. Not exactly impossible to get.

BTW, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ was first published in 1974. Are you advocating that works less than 30 years old should be out of copyright and in the public domain?

Surprisingly, bibliophage missed that reference. But he’s got sex showing up in the story in just about every other way you can imagine.

What about board games?

It’s 99 years now? 100?

Will Monopoly be in the public domain come 2030?

To complicate matters, manuscripts that have never been published are generally not in the public domain. The copyright clock doesn’t start to run until the work is first published. You generally need to obtain permission of the owner of the manuscript to publish or quote from them.

For unpublished works (such as newly discovered manuscripts) the above is not correct.

For Europe see Directive 93/98/EEC of 29 october 1993 (at EUR-Lex):

For the U.S. see Title 17 of the U.S. Code

This looks as if a similar rule applies to the U.S., but I leave it to a U.S. lawyer to explain this properly.

Bah, fecking moderators. :slight_smile:

False, at least under U.S. copyright law. For unpublished works, the copyright term is the life of the author plus 70 years. For an unpublished work made anonymously or for hire, the term is 120 years from the date of creation.