Navigate / search

International database of copyright holders celebrates 20th anniversary

By Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center and the University of Reading have worked together for the past 20 years to establish and maintain the WATCH File, now one of the largest worldwide resources on copyright information. To commemorate the 20th anniversary, Rick Watson, current U.S. compiler for WATCH, and Andrew Gansky, a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, interviewed founders Cathy Henderson and David Sutton and invited them to reflect on their experiences building and running an online international copyright resource, to share their perspectives on the changing landscape of copyright policy, and to comment on what the future might hold for WATCH.

 

What was the original impetus for WATCH?

WATCH came into being in mid-1994 as a response to the revision of national laws (following the principles of the Berne Convention, an international agreement governing copyright) to favor the intellectual property rights of creators, making copyright protection automatic at the moment of creation. This shift in law set up an environment in which those who wanted to make use of those creations might more frequently need to obtain express permission to do so. WATCH is now the world’s primary source of information about who holds the copyright in any individual’s creative works. The acronym originally stood for Writers and Their Copyright Holders, and it was upgraded in 1997 to include artists.

 

How did WATCH develop as a web resource?

WATCH was initially launched as a pre-web online gopher file. With the rapid development of the World Wide Web, by 1996 WATCH had become one of the earliest public information websites, and probably one of the first to be a joint U.S.-U.K. project. The web address has changed over the years but has always been reachable through the helpful alias of www.watch-file.com.

 

The starting-points for the WATCH research were informal (often handwritten) sources in the major research libraries. The Harry Ransom Center had records of the copyright holders of up to 1,000 authors, mostly literary and mostly British, and by late 1994 they had obtained written permissions to include details on more than 700 of these copyright holders in the database. Other early contributors included the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the National Library of Wales, the University of Delaware Library, and the Huntington Library.

 

While the project had archival and literary origins (a first-name list of authors to be included was provided by a Reading-based parent project called the Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters), a principle was established very early on of never refusing to include copyright information provided to the WATCH offices, even if it was not very literary, not very archival, or not very British or American. As a result, the WATCH file now contains well over 20,000 records covering creators from about a hundred different countries.

 

What were the challenges with WATCH as it developed, whether technological, institutional support, or copyright holder participation?

The British end of the project was enthusiastically supported by the Society of Authors and the British Library and attracted funding from the Strachey Trust, the Arts Council, the Royal Literary Fund, the British Academy, and a number of private charities, including the Pilgrim Trust, the Chase Charity, and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

 

On the U.S. side, Ransom Center reference staff contribute content, while the Center’s IT staff has ably migrated the database content across a succession of platforms and currently maintains the website and underlying data infrastructure.

 

What has it been like maintaining WATCH as a joint U.K.-U.S. enterprise, especially in terms of differing copyright regulations and contexts between countries?

A division of labor was established relatively early on. The Reading WATCH office locates copyright holders for U.K. and European-born writers and artists while the Ransom Center WATCH office focuses primarily on U.S. and North American–born ones.

 

When and why did the need for a different database for literary organizations and publishing houses become apparent?

Publishing and literary organizations—publishing houses, literary agencies, and little magazines—that have gone out of business and disappeared from view are notoriously difficult to track. The two WATCH teams began work on creating an addition to WATCH, which has been named FOB (Firms Out of Business) in 2006. This is a separate file accessible from the WATCH home page that will grow as information is researched in both Reading and Texas. New content for FOB is welcome from anyone conducting research in this particular field of study.

 

Do you foresee any particular challenges for WATCH and FOB in the future as technologies and copyright practices continue to evolve?

With regard to WATCH, we are monitoring whether or not the U.S. Copyright Office and copyright regulating authorities in other countries heed a call for a reintroduction of national copyright registries. Should that happen, then the need for the WATCH file may diminish. Indeed, the WATCH file might even be absorbed by one or more such registries. The utility of FOB, however, is likely only to grow as the business model for traditional print publishers continues to shift dramatically, resulting in mergers and firms going out of business.

 

Any particular goals for growing or expanding WATCH and FOB?

The universities of Texas and Reading are fully committed to maintaining WATCH and supporting both the expansion of its international role and its participation in new and related areas of research. One of the greatest challenges is to secure continuing external funding beyond the annual support of the Strachey Trust and the British Academy so that more resources can be directed to the kind of purposeful and sometimes in-depth research required to enhance and update the WATCH and FOB files.

 

Finally, I am sure we would all like to hear any especially interesting copyright stories. Any surprises in 20 years, or stories that illustrate the relationship between WATCH, copyright holders listed in, or scholars who use the database?

The WATCH offices have received some very strange letters and emails over the years, including several from authors enquiring about the whereabouts of their own copyrights, requests for copyright information about nursery rhymes and stories like “Three little pigs,” and one letter from an author who had died some months earlier. (It transpired that the letter had been found in his desk after his death, and his executors had decided to post it, in view of its positive comments about WATCH and request to be included: a posthumous plaudit.) WATCH was even once contacted by a private investigator hired to track down the owner of an obscure author’s copyrights.

 

We have a stored message for regular pasting and sending which simply reads “Copyright generally lasts for 70 years after the author’s death.  As William Shakespeare died in 1616, there is no copyright in his work.”

 

As an annoyance and a curiosity, the duration of copyright in manuscript materials in the U.K. is a constant source of surprise.  Every year the U.K. WATCH Office refers authors seeking to clear copyright for Charles Dickens (who died in 1870) to Commander Mark Dickens, and for Lord Byron (who died in 1824) to Messrs John Murray.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

“By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them”

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center holds the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. archive, which includes books published under the Borzoi imprint and books from Alfred A. and Blanche Knopf’s personal library. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director for Exhibitions and Fleur Cowles Executive Curator, Cathy Henderson, and Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian, Richard Oram, collaborated on The House of Knopf, which consists of collected documents from the Knopf, Inc. archive and is now part of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series.

Under the title heading, The Borzoi Credo, Alfred A. Knopf’s principles of publishing appeared in the November 1957 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Chief among his many standards in book production, Knopf stressed quality:

I believe that good books should be well made, and I try to give every book I publish a format that is distinctive and attractive.”

It comes as no surprise that a Borzoi book published by the house of Knopf would resemble the personalities and preserve the canon of its founders, Alfred A. and Blanche Wolf Knopf. In fact, Blanche, fond of the Russian wolfhounds’ aesthetic look, chose the Borzoi as the publishing house’s legendary colophon. Ironically, Blanche later owned a pair of borzois and grew to despise them, wishing she had chosen another dog for the Knopf imprint.

Known for their distinctive styles of dress and aggressive business demeanors, Alfred and Blanche burst into the publishing scene in 1915. And, style for style, Borzoi books, like the fashions of Alfred and Blanche, made a statement.

Favoring English tweed jackets and lemon-colored shirts, Alfred broke through the monochrome haze with his flamboyant style. Blanche preferred French haute couture, and was often found sheathed in classic Dior, oozing Parisian cool.

Knopf author Elizabeth Bowen, distinctly recalls her first encounter with Alfred Knopf in Portrait of a Publisher (1965). In the early 1930s, Alfred Knopf asked Bowen to meet him for lunch at the Savoy while on one of his trips to London. Already knowing Blanche well, Bowen recalls how she waltzed into the large foyer when it suddenly struck her that she had no idea what Alfred looked like. Trying to orient herself, Bowen put on her spectacles and circled the room:

“Then, my eye lit on a tie, some distance away. The sun glinted on it. The tie was not so much magenta as the dark-bright purple-crimson of a petunia, and it was worn with a shirt of a light green, just too blue to be almond, just not blue enough to be verdigris. Tie and shirt were at some height from the ground; their wearer stood leaning in a doorway or archway, a vantage-point some way away from the throng. He looked almost sleepy. With an onlooker’s great calmness, one might say indolence, he was considering everybody, including me.” Bowen’s instincts were correct; the colorful stranger was indeed Alfred A. Knopf.

Five short years after founding the Borzoi imprint, Alfred and Blanche had firmly established their high standards of book production, becoming formidable figures in American literary publishing.

The pair often used their striking Tudor house in Purchase, New York as a meeting place for entertaining Knopf authors. Known as “The Hovel,” Alfred and Blanche’s home was anything but. A 1928 Westchester County newspaper article entitled, “By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them,” highlights the most important room in the house: their library. Filled with exquisite books with fine German bindings and work of the world’s best typographers, their library held representatives from important presses.

The Knopf’s standards remained intact even during World War II when paper and other essentials were scarce. Books printed during that time enclosed a notice from the publisher assuring the purchaser that, despite the need to economize, Borzoi books would continue to use the highest quality cloths that could be procured and carry on exceptional typographical and binding design. In fact, the notice said that the slimmer models afforded easier readability and handling than their fatter fellows.

Alfred, ever the advocate of fine quality, staunchly resisted the introduction of inexpensive paperbacks following World War II. He finally gave in and established the Vintage paperback series in 1954, under the stipulation that even Knopf paperbacks uphold the same aesthetic values and employ his talented book designers, such as Warren Chappell.

Alfred and Blanche made sure to impart their personal signature upon every Borzoi book, so that each publication was a work of art in itself. Alfred and Blanche’s high standards in book production attracted many of their authors, including Willa Cather.

As Bowen put it, “part of the splendor of a Knopf book is that it does not revive or cling to an old tradition, it founds a new one. This is a beauty which is contemporary, a work through contrast, pure and clarified colour; angle, surface. A book of this kind is not only to be devoured by the eyes, but handled: it is a pleasure to the fingertips. It gains weight from the fine solidity of the paper; yet lightness from the set-out of the distinctive type on each spacious page.”

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ben Ruggiero sensitizes paper in preparation to create a photogenic drawing as part of 'The Colorful Print: Photography before 1843' workshop at the Ransom Center. Taught by artist-educators and historians Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, participants made their own prints using 19th-century chemistry and techniques. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ben Ruggiero sensitizes paper in preparation to create a photogenic drawing as part of 'The Colorful Print: Photography before 1843' workshop at the Ransom Center. Taught by artist-educators and historians Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, participants made their own prints using 19th-century chemistry and techniques. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson (far left) led a tour of restricted-access areas of the building, including collection storage and the cataloging, technology, and conservation departments, for Ransom Center members at the Guild level and above. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson (far left) led a tour of restricted-access areas of the building, including collection storage and the cataloging, technology, and conservation departments, for Ransom Center members at the Guild level and above. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Anthony Bertram Rota's legacy at the Ransom Center

By Cathy Henderson

Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
The Ransom Center notes with great sorrow the death of Anthony Bertram Rota on December 13, 2009. As managing director and chairman of Bertram Rota Ltd, the London-based antiquarian bookseller was greatly influential in shaping the Center’s renowned holdings of the papers of numerous nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first–century British writers. Over a succession of five Ransom Center directors, the firm sold more than 500 collections to the Center, including the personal papers of several writing dynasties, notably those of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Theodore Francis, Llewellyn, and John Cowper Powys.

In his memoir, Books in the Blood (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), Anthony Rota recalled his annual travels to the United States: “In a two or three-week trip I would visit between seven and ten university libraries, sometimes speaking to gatherings of professional staff and sometimes talking to students who were English majors. . . I went to New York and to Austin each year. I always arranged for my time in Texas to fall so that it covered a weekend, for I soon had many friends in town and I liked the outdoor lifestyle that they followed.” His annual visits were as eagerly anticipated by Ransom Center staff; occasions for barbeque and margaritas as much as for books and manuscripts.

Generous with his time and expertise, Anthony Rota taught generations of rare book librarian professionals the craft of modern collecting through courses at the Rare Book School, presentations at professional conferences, and by example. The firm’s collection descriptions are models of clarity and precision; miniature literary histories tracking the creative process. His legacy of enriched research collections benefits scholarship and ensures a greater understanding of a shared culture.