A Letter from America XII: Booksellers' Descriptions and Copyright (March)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

From time to time someone raises with me the interesting question of whether or not bookseller’s descriptions are subject to copyright. As a strict point of law, it would seem, they are only partially; you can hardly copyright author/title/pagination information of someone else’s book, but what the bookseller has to say about the work is surely their own (thought) and they can presumably sue anybody who reproduces in whole or in part their deathless prose. As a practical matter this is not really the case, partially because it is a very hard matter to police, and partly because many bookseller’s descriptions are cribbed from other authorities anyway.

It has always been fun to look back at earlier generations of bookseller’s catalogues and try to figure out where certain assertions and phrases were lifted from. In my kind of stuff there is a book by T.F. Dawson and J.F. Skiff called THE UTE WAR, published in Denver in 1879, and describing an outbreak of violence against Indian agents in western Colorado in 1878. For decades booksellers have cited each other saying that the book is rare because the unbound sheets were used as cartridge wadding in "another Indian outbreak." I did this too until I realized that the so-called Ute war was the last conflict of its kind in Colorado, and that the army by 1878 was using brass cartridges and didn’t need any wadding. I finally ran the origin of the fable to earth in a 1919 auction catalogue. The same wording used there has survived almost intact to the present day. Whose copyright is that?

One clue to lifted descriptions are pet descriptive phrases favored by the bookseller. A former employee of mine, a skilled cataloger and bookseller, is very fond of the word "pleasing." He would use it at every opportunity, and I would try to edit it out just as fast. In my view a book can be many things – magnificent, awe-inspiring, wonderful, thought-provoking, or just plain nice – but not "pleasing." Despite my best efforts he got a number past me, and whenever I check something in old cataloging and find that word, I know who wrote the description. Another, now departed, bookseller of my acquaintance was fond of the cryptic term "measurably rare". What exactly does that mean? I never found out. Another formerly extant American bookseller employed the abbreviation "fxd" as a catch-all in his physical description of the book to indicate that it had – well, problems. Again, it was unclear what that meant; possibly "foxed," or "fixed," but almost certainly "f----d". "Fxd" was as clear a signature of authorship as that bookseller’s name.

This leads us to the Bookselling Catechism of Cliché; phrases so hackneyed that are beyond copyright or anything else. With apologies to Flann O’Brien, here we go:

In what affectionate state do we often find the hinges of a binding?


And if not tender, in what prostrated condition might they be?


Yes, but they are seldom simply weak. In what pudding-like way are they weak?

A trifle weak.

Very good. Now let us say the binding is cloth. In what frightened state might we find those hinges?


Ouch. And what massage-like activity many have been performed on the boards?


And even if the boards have been gone over with a trowel, to what conditional degree have they been rubbed?


Yes, never more than somewhat. And library stamps. In what close-mouthed form are they generally found?

They are discreet.

Phew. Enough of that for one day, but you get the idea. There is a certain rhythm to many bookseller’s descriptions that makes them closer to what musicians call a "traditional arrangement" than unique prose.

Having said that, the last generation of bookselling has seen a revolution in the quality of cataloging being offered to the customers. Many of my colleagues are writing superb, scholarly descriptions which are admirable summations of the books they offer for sale, often in difficult technical fields. Indeed, this is one of the real pleasures of specialized antiquarian bookselling in the modern era; mastering the history of a discipline or area of historical research and trying to explain it in clear, possibly jargon-free, prose. This has been further enhanced by the many beautifully produced catalogues in which these descriptions appear, often with lovely illustrations. As antiquarian bookselling has evolved, it is this formula of mastery of knowledge and explanation which has allowed specialized dealers to prosper.

As with so many things, the Internet has changed the efficacy of the well-wrought book description. In the past, a specialist bookseller could devote time and effort to researching and writing detailed explanations of his books and offer it exclusively to his customers, or at least to the people on his mailing list. This level of expertise was commonly held to justify a somewhat higher price. Now one can go to ABE, read the superb description of Vendor A, and buy the cheaper copy listed next to it from Vendor B. The playing field of knowledge has been leveled, but the expert must start to question how he or she is going to expend their knowledge. Even if you unquestionably own the copyright to your description, posting it online is just as surely giving it away. Many specialists must ask themselves if they can afford to do that. And what firm substances does that put them between?

A rock and a hard place.

– William S. Reese