Hair story and copyright question

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    From: Heilbrun Harvey
    Date: Wed, 28 Mar 2018 17:22:33 -0400

    A while ago you had a thread on Hair Stories. One of you mentioned the story of Melisande. It’s from a book called Nine Unlikely Tales by E. Nesbit. I believe it was published in 1901. It was inferred that since the book was published in 1901 and that it is now available for free on, that it is in public domain and therefore no permission is needed in order for someone who wants to learn and perform the story.

    I read the book and love the story and would like to add it to my repertoire of stories that I perform. Here’s the question. 1) Is it true that since Gutenberg published it for free, that it is now in public domain and I do not need to ask permission to perform it?

    If that is the case, here’s the rub: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers published a picture book version of the story, Melisande in 1989. It is the story from E. Nesbit’s book. They do credit the author, but not the collection it came from. It says it was first published by Walker Books, London in 1987.

    Now back to the copyright and permissions issue. Where do I stand? And what steps do I need to take to request permission to tell, if that is in fact necessary.

    Thanks for any advice you can give me.

    Harvey Heilbrun

    “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein


    From: Audrey Kopp
    Date: Wed, 28 Mar 2018 19:54:03 -0700

    The Melisande story by Nesbit can be found at

    On another page within the SurLaLune site it says:
    SurLaLune offers a full text version of each tale from an out-of-copyright resource.

    Hope this helps.


    My two favorite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything. The perfect day: riding a bike to the library. -Peter Golkin, museum spokesman (1966- )


    From: Tim Sheppard
    Date: Thu, 29 Mar 2018 10:14:27 +0100

    At the top of every Gutenberg text you’ll find a lengthy passage explaining that it is out of copyright and in the public domain.

    Just because you find a more recent book with it in doesn’t have any bearing on the story itself being out of copyright.

    Don’t forget that books and lawyers will assert copyright over a book that seems to cover the whole story but in fact only covers the new creative additions – for instance the design of the cover, the typographical layout, the illustrations etc. Sometimes, with a facsimile reproduction, the only thing that is genuinely copyrightable is the copyright notice!

    Copyright is over an individual _expression_ of art. I don’t remember whether Melisande is an old folktale, but if so, Nesbit only had copyright over her particular literary _expression_ of it and not over the folktale.

    So… no permission needed in any case. Gutenberg are diligent in checking copyright, so their publication is a reliable guide.

    Steve Daut

    I just finished my new book, Telling Twain, so I learned a lot about public domain and copywright issues, although my disclaimer is that I’m not a lawyer so what do I know? But this is what I have found.

    As Tim Sheppard noted, Project Gutenberg is a reliable source. They do have some things that carry copywright, but each one is carefully noted, so if you don’t see a notice, you can be pretty comfotable that the work is safe from copywright claims. In general, if your source work is first published before 1923, it is in the public domain. There is a rare case where source material was recorded on a different medium (i.e., microfilm), and the writer that used that microfilm as a source got into trouble, but I’m not sure that even held up.

    Anyway, with public domain, even if a later source is used, that source can not claim copywright for the content that is directly taken from the orginal source, but only for their modification or presentation of the material. For instance, they can claim copywright for the particular sequence of stories, and they can also claim copywright for the modifications made.

    As an example, as I understand it, if the original sentence was “I was determined to tip my hat the next time I saw her”, and the new source reads “I had decided to tip my brown hat the next time I saw her”, the new source can only claim copywright to the phrase “had decided” and the word “brown”, possibly claiming that they had created a new sentence with the modifications. But the rest of the sentence remains in the public domain. In other words, the new source can’t remove the public domain aspect of the original simply by creating a derivatve work. Anyway, a long-winded, and possible esoteric discussion of the vagaries of working with public domain material.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by Steve Daut.
    Steve Daut

    Just a follow-up on my post. The pre-1923 applies to first publication, not when the story was written. If a story was written in 1900 but didn’t get published until 1925, then it could still be under copywright. So it is safest to find a pre-1923 publication source, rather than relying on a copywright claim or notice.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by Steve Daut.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by Steve Daut.
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