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Why Latin books are still disappearing

I was fascinated to read Daniel Petterson’s story behind the repopularisation of the out of print novel Ad Alpēs, which he digitised and brought into print in 2017. The author, Herbert Chester Nutting, died in 1934.

The book has gained a lot of interest, and is now freely available on Wikisource as a downloadable ebook; it will soon also be available for free on Project Gutenberg.

The book is a great example of using ‘extended reading’ as a way to build up linguistic knowledge. As Nutting says in the introduction:

It has long been recognized that the transition from the conventional beginners’ book to Caesar is too abrupt; and there has been more or less agitation for an extension of “beginning Latin” … making room for a considerable amount of graded reading before the first Latin author is seriously taken up.

Preface, Ad Alpēs

Daniel says:

“Before we published a new edition, it was an extremely rare book, which my students complained about when I told them to get it. Only three were able to find it.

The book went out of print in the 1920s, it seems, after two editions.

In the last few weeks, the Latin Youtube channel Found in Antiquity has been reading from a similar aged book, Latin for Today, first published in 1928. One of the authors, Mason De Witt Gray, is recorded as having died in 1928, which may be an error; but it is unknown when the second, Thorton Jenkins died.

Found in Antiquity makes interesting observations about the teaching method, which is very much in tune with current ideas about comprehensible input, and also as she says has parallels with the ‘natural method’ used by Familia Romana.

Both books, then, have strong recommendations for the modern Latin learner, and can be useful tools. Both, however, had disappeared from sight. Why?

The answer is a simple, but painful one: they disappeared because of the interminable and unpredictable length of copyright term. When Daniel published Ad Alpēs in 2016, it might have still been under US copyright. Published in 1923, it should have been due to exit US copyright at the start of 2018.*

It seems that the book was published by Google Books digitisation project in 2018, exactly 95 years after publication, and then reached; and of course a scanned copy is necessary before people can start to turn it into a fully transcribed copy.

Latin for Today remains under US copyright. The 1928 edition will enter the public domain in 2023 (that is, 95 years after the year of publication, always on January 1). As a result, digitisation projects won’t want to publish until at least that date. Scanned copies cannot circulate until at least January 2023.

The fact is that vastly inflated copyright terms continue to frustrate even the Latin learner. We should take note of this, and do our best to bring public domain works freely to the public, by spotting works like Latin for Today and making sure they are on our radar to digitise as soon as they are legally available.

* We think copyright in Ad Alpēs may have not been renewed, though, so US copyright may have lasped much earlier. It is unsurprising that Google would not have noticed this. (Update: Daniel Petterson confirms he made the same check, and US copyright was not renewed.)

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