Tracking Accuracy in Copyright Records – A Case Study

A few weeks ago, Joseph Felcone emailed me to ask about helping with a mystery in the copyright records he’d been investigating, and asked if I’d help.  For folks not in the know, Joe is an expert on New Jersey books and publishing, and the author of a number of wonderful books on the subject – including a recent catalog of all New Jersey copyright registrations from 1791-1870, which all fine libraries should own (if unsure if your library is truly fine, order a copy from Joe to cement such status).

Joe was trying to determine information about A Member of Congress. A Novel. By William Wentworth (New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1898).  He’d already figured out a fair bit of what I discuss below, but I think the process of figuring out the information is informative, because it tells us about how inaccuracy and uncertainty can creep into the copyright records.  The story continues below.

If you knew nothing about the book you’d go looking for William Wentworth as an author, but that would be for naught, because William Wentworth was a pseudonym.  A visit to the pre-1938 pseudonym section of the copyright card catalog will resolve that issue, though:

With the power of Google we’re able to bypass the pseudonym card, though – Worldcat and the Catalog of Copyright Entries both show the author as being “Edwin Beckman.”  The Catalog of Copyright Entries reports the copyright information as:

[Beckman, Edwin.] A member of congress. A novel. By William Wentworth [pseud.]. New York. (G. W.  Dillingham co., 1898. 243pp. 12 . cop.  (Dillingham’s metropolitan Library. no. 37.) (1898. no. 18639, Mar. 21., 2 copies rec’d Apr. 18. 1898.) Copyright by E. Beckman, Middleton. N.J.
The Copyright Card Catalog has essentially the same information:
The problem is that there was no Edwin Beckman living in Middleton, NJ.  There was, however, an Edwin Beekman living in Middleton who matches the background of what we’d expect of the author.  So I pulled out the original copyright registration from 1898:
(I fiddled with the colors a bit to make the fainter parts legible – the original is more yellow-white).
To be honest, that could say Beekman or Beckman.  But knowing that there was an Edwin Beekman who could be the author living in the Middletown, and not an Edwin Beckman, it seems clear-cut to me that the attribution to Edwin Beckman was an error based on a misreading of the copyright registration.
I don’t know how many other cases like this there are lurking in the copyright records, but it seems a worthwhile reminder of the fallacy of relying too heavily on records generations removed from the original.

Author: Zvi S. Rosen

Lawyer and sometimes academic. I've written a fair deal about the evolution of intellectual property law into its present form, this blog is a way to share things that don't fit into a full-length article.

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