MathWorld’s Copyright Problems.

The O’Reilly Network recently featured an article by John McDonald, Treasure Trove Looted, which shed some light on situation surrounding Eric Weisstein’s MathWorld. I had heard the problems involved copyright issues, but assumed they involved the sort of copyright issues that are more common with the Internet where copyrighted material gets posted on a web site. In this case, though, the problem is far more complex and contains a great lesson for authors.

It seems that Weisstein’s site, which contained a lot of valuable information about math-related topics, became so successful that he successfully pitched a book proposal to CRC Press and much of the content Weisstein wrote for the web site became a book, The CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics.

Here’s where it starts to get weird. After publishing the book, CRC Press informed Weisstein that its contract with him clearly granted CRC Press ownership of any derivative works, and the web site was just such a derivative work. After some back and forth, the site is completely shut down as of this writing. In effect, CRC Press maintains they bought the copyright not to just the book, but to the web site as well, and they don’t want the web site competing with the book.

First, the logic here is completely backward. The web site will only promote sales of the book. Since there is still no good way to electronically access reference materials consistently, its unlikely the existence of the web pages would have cut into sales the book (more likely fans of the site would have made up a substantial number of the book’s buyers).

Second, Weisstein apparently made a huge mistake by not making sure the web site wasn’t considered a derivative work before he signed his publishing contract. I mean I don’t know about you, but if Random House calls and tells me they want me to write a book about overpopulation based on my web site, the first thing I’d want is my lawyer and their lawyers coming to an agreement that the book contract wouldn’t affect the copyright of the web site.

In fact a couple years ago when I was contacted by a publisher who bought the rights to republish an essay I’d written for one of my web sites, I made darn sure that they were not purchasing the copyright as well and my future use of the essay would not be restricted in any way.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve stopped working for companies that wanted me to sign away more of the rights for my writing than I was willing to do. Some people I know have looked at me a bit skeptically when I’ve mentioned this, considering it an overreaction on my part. On the other hand it’s cases like Weisstein’s that show just how important it is to understand the legal ramifications of what you’re doing before you sign any sort of publishing contract.

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