Can Text That Predates Copyright Protection Be Used Without Permission If It Has Been Recently Altered?

Copyright laws regarding old and even ancient texts are clear. The novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas is not protected by copyright laws. Neither is Macbeth by Shakespeare or Emma by Jane Austen. So could Exemplary Tales of Love and Tales of Disillusion, written by María de Zayas y Sotomayor in approximately 1647, enjoy copyright protection?

The answer to this question is “possibly,” if the text has been significantly altered, and the altered text was copyrighted. This is the key question in a lawsuit filed by author and translator Julian Olivares against Elizabeth Rhodes, a professor at Duke University and Margaret Greer, a professor at Boston College. 

The facts of the case are as follows. In 2009, Rhodes and Greer published an English-language version of the Spanish-language Exemplary Tales of Love and Tales of Disillusion. In the book’s introduction, Rhodes and Greer state that the Spanish-language version of Exemplary Tales, on which they based their English translation, was Olivares’, that Olivares served as an editor of their book and that Olivares was one of many people who provided “assistance and support” for their work.

Olivares has sued, claiming that he published his work with a copyright  and that Rhodes and Greer did not request or receive permission to use his work in any way.  He also alleged that his edition was a “new and different version” of Exemplary Tales that contained “a large amount” of original material and is therefore eligible for protection.  As well as that he did not serve as editor for the work or provide assistance and support and that he was not in contact with Rhodes and Greer at all.

Though the outcome of the case will not be known for months or years, it already illustrates an important point: Even seemingly clear-cut cases of copyright protection can quickly become complex. It therefore makes sense to work with a qualified copyright attorney when publishing and using material, as well as when litigating in a copyright dispute case. 

New York City attorney Thomas M. Lancia has successfully tried and arbitrated copyright infringement and trademark legal cases since 1998 and can provide the answers and assistance you need regarding intellectual property law questions. Call (212)964-3157 for a consultation today.