Robert Sheckley--Will his work survive?

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Robert Sheckley--Will his work survive?

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Nov 29, 2007, 5:11 pm

I recently came across Christopher Priest's 2005 obituary of Robert Sheckley. At one point Mr. Priest states: "In a just world, Robert Sheckley would be recognised as one of the most important American short story writers of the 20th century".

I've been a fan of Sheckley's for years but I wonder if his mordant, satirical tales will stand the test of time. Your thoughts on his legacy and work...

Nov 29, 2007, 5:21 pm

Well... since I have never read anything by him (to my knowledge) nor remember hearing about him other than maybe an LT post, from my point of view it doesn't look to good for longevity. However, I'm more than willing to admit missing knowledge of many wonderful writers so it could just be me.

Nov 29, 2007, 5:50 pm

Yes, but Chris' point was that this isn't a just world.

Like so many SF authors, Sheckley will be remembered by those who knew his work as a master of the humourous/satirical short story. Later generations will have the pleasure of discovering him for the firsttime. Isn't half the fun discovering lost classics of earlier ages?

And his works will be identified as classics. I regularly think of his tale of the two humans locked in an alien warehouse, starving to death surrounded by food they can't eat with labels that say things like 'Vormitash - as good as it sounds!' and 'Vigroon - fills all your stomachs and fills them right!'. Or the stories of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Trucking Company - has anyone yet found a Laxian Key?

I met Sheckley once, when he came to the UK in 1977 or '78. I was introduced to Irish whiskey at the same meeting. That night counts high in my list of life-changing experiences!

Nov 29, 2007, 7:27 pm

It's an interesting question as the majority of his work already appears to be oop. One of the problems may be that he doesn't have a defining work; a major novel that can be used to push him back into the light, especially since the appeal of short stories to publishers is ever diminishing. (I have no doubt that some small press will publish his work but that could be squarely aimed at collectors). An even larger problem is that he doesn't have any significant following within the sf community; there may be no demand to bring his work back into print.

There is a larger question here as well - how well does sf date in general?

Nov 30, 2007, 5:01 am

One could say that about lots of writers.

At our local SF group the other week we were bemoaning the fact that Bob Shaw is out of print, that the Helliconia series by Aldiss (heck, plenty of Aldiss) is out of print, that lots of good Brunner out of print (that was also mentioned with regret at a SF con this year). Looking a bit further we have Joanna Russ, Clifford Simak (although a small press seems to have published a couple of works), D.G. Compton (the current SFWA Author Emeritus who has no books in print) and I am sure I have missed some out. At least John Crowley has got Aegypt back into print (eventually).

Life isn't fair.

The fact that Bob Sheckley still languishes does show how ineffective the SFWA Author Emeritus programme is at increasing the visibility of a writer. Currently he has the one book in print Mindswap however he was at his best as short fiction.

Edited: Nov 30, 2007, 7:57 am

Andy: His short fiction was his absolute forte, which makes it doubly regrettable that so little of Sheckley's well-crafted short prose is available to contemporary readers.

I first came across Sheckley when my mother bought me CITIZEN IN SPACE (I was around 12 or 13). She tended to buy books almost at random for me and since this one had "space" in the title, she thought I might like it. On this occasion, she was bang on. I recall the stories about the AAA guys--two of the unluckiest fellas who ever set out to make a fortune in human history--with great fondness.

I've just run downstairs to check on the Sheckley I have and just flipping through the pages makes me smile. There's "Skulking Permit" in which a human outpost has to reinvent crime and murder in order to prove they're still, well, human. And "Disposal Service", where a small fee will remove any unwanted individual from your life and "Specialist", "Untouched by Human Hands", "Hands Off"...I'm sure I could fill up the page with more.

I think it's true, as jargoneer says, that Robert Sheckley may not have had a central defining work and that has hurt him with fans. Maybe if someone comes up with another remake of "Seventh Victim" starring Angelie Jolie and Brad Pitt--er, never mind..

Dec 1, 2007, 6:22 pm

NESFA Press has The Masque of Manana (stories) and Dimensions of Sheckley (short novels) still in print and both are available from Amazon. These would be a terrific place to start if you've never read Sheckley.

That a career in sf could be based mainly or entirely on short fiction, prior to the 1970s or so, is today a great handicap to the writers who did that, since single-author collections are so unpopular today. Fredric Brown comes to mind also, here.

Dec 1, 2007, 9:46 pm

I grew up on the Sheckley short stories, his collections from the '50s were pretty common in used book stores when I was a kid.

When I was a college student, a couple of friends of mine went off to internships in NYC, and they found a very nice sublet apartment in Greenwich Village.

My pals threw a party, inviting mutual friends working in the big city, and a couple of carloads of their friends from school, and - to forestall noise complaints - they had the foresight to invite their neighbors. So, as the party warmed up, in strolls one of the neighbors: Robert Sheckley. Who, at the time, was the sf editor of Omni magazine.

I was the only one of the kids there - this was a context completely outside of sf, or sf fandom, and he was just Some Guy looking in on the party next door - who recognized him. But that's ok, as I was starstruck enough to compensate for the entire room. So we drank whiskey together for a while; I found him to be gentlemanly, funny and charming. And gracious to a star-struck kid.

(I woke up the next morning in the back of a van somewhere in New Jersey, but that's an entirely different story.)

Edited: Dec 2, 2007, 10:36 am

Duke: thanks for plugging Sheckley's stuff and I hope people actively seek out those titles you cite...and pillage used book stores for the works no longer in print.

Bob: always fun to hear from you, man. The story you told about Sheckley had me green with envy. One of the drawbacks of living in such remote climes is that I don't get to meet my literary heroes. A drink with Bob Sheckley? I think I would've enjoyed that. Perhaps somewhere down the road you'll finish the account and we'll find out how you ended up in that van...

Dec 2, 2007, 9:46 am

LT's part-owner returns 4270 titles for Robert Sheckley. Lots of good stuff there.

Dec 17, 2007, 11:11 am

Has anyone read or recalls the story Sheckley collaborated on with Harlan Ellison (found in PARTNERS IN WONDER)? The tale leads off the collection and is titled "I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair is Biting His Leg". It's a good piece of work, certainly one of the more successful marriages of minds in the book.

Here's an exchange from Robert Sheckley's "Ticket to Tranai" that sums up what I love so much about his work. The man was devilishly funny:

"All government officials," Melith explained, "wear a badge of office, which contains a traditional amount of tessium, an explosive you may have heard of. The charge is radio controlled from the Citizens Booth. Any citizen has access to the Booth, for the purpose of expressing his disapproval of the government." Melith sighed. "This will go down as a permanent black mark against poor Borg's record."

"You let people express their disapproval by blowing up officials?" Goodman croaked, appalled.

"It's the only way that means anything," said Melith. "Check and balance. Just as the people are in our hands, so we are in the people's hands."

"And THAT'S why he wanted me to take over his term. Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"You didn't ask," Melith said, with the suspicion of a smile...

--and how about this nice bit from Sheckley's classic "Seventh Victim", depicting a future society where civilized people hunt and kill each other for sport and status:

He crossed the street, quickening his stride. He could hardly wait to get home now, to open the envelope and discover who his victim was. Would he be clever or stupid? Rich, like Frelaine's fourth Victim, or poor, like the first and second? Would he have an organized Spotter service, or try to go it on his own?

The excitement of the chase was wonderful, coursing through his veins, quickening his heartbeat. From a block or two away, he heard gunfire. Two quick shots, and then a final one.

Somebody got his man, Frelaine thought. Good for him.

It was a superb feeling, he told himself. He was ALIVE again...


That Sheckley fella, some writer.

Dec 22, 2007, 2:59 pm

#8 The end of your little anecdote could be the beginning of a Sheckley story.

Dec 22, 2007, 3:14 pm

One would have to check and see if there are any Sheckley stories optioned now in the movie industry. If so, and if a hit was made from one of the stories, then he might be resurrected. It's happened before.

Dec 22, 2007, 4:00 pm

I've never read anything by Sheckley before and I don't recall even hearing the name. But in the recommendations here I grabbed up Citizen in Space and Immortality Inc from

Dec 22, 2007, 11:20 pm

Both are terrific collections and you've got some hours of fun reading ahead of you. I envy you for getting to discover Sheckley for the first time.

Dec 23, 2007, 7:26 pm

bluetyson, do you know how these rather recent titles came to be available via Project Gutenberg? Shouldn't they be still in copyright? Did the Sheckley estate make them available? Would the etext intro say?

Dec 23, 2007, 7:30 pm

Hmm, the bibliographic header for The Status Civilization says "Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook". But Robert Sheckley died only in 2005; I wonder how it happened that the work went out of copyright.

Have to say it's probably good, on balance - Sheckley's not that well remembered, and probably more people will read the work, and maybe eventually buy some books, if it's free.

Edited: Dec 24, 2007, 10:26 am

But the copyright thing...exploiting a work without the author's (or their Estate's) permission. That's one of the biggest knocks against cyberspace, it doesn't respect ownership. I want to see Sheckley's work get more exposure too--but only from authorized venues that have legally acquired that right and are operating with the knowledge and approval of the author (or his/her heirs). As far as I know, authors' works are copyrighted until 75 years after their death. So SOMEONE must be in charge of Sheckley's interests...

Dec 24, 2007, 10:09 pm

#18 - 20: Project Gutenberg is very careful about copyright, afaik. Sheckley probably made explicit provision for the free electronic distribution of these works, perhaps by releasing them under a Creative Commons license, as Cory Doctorow does.

Dec 27, 2007, 2:28 pm

#20, #21

I think that The Status Civilization is quite an old book. At that time the USA hadn't signed the Berne Convention and copyrights had to be renewed every 28 years. The front page of the PG edition says that the copyright wasn't renewed.

Jan 5, 2008, 8:28 am

I've read three Sheckley collections (Is That What People Do?, The People Trap and Other Pitfalls, Untouched by Human Hands), and I've really enjoyed the early Sheckley stories, but I must say that I've been disappointed by his later (late 70s and early 80s) work. If I had started with stories like "Goodbye Forever to Mr. Pain," "The Last Days of (Parallel?) Earth," "The Future Lost," "The Life of Anybody," "and "The Shaggy Average American Man Story" I probably would not have ready any further.

Jan 5, 2008, 9:57 am

Sorry for not noticing this for a while, dukedom, but andy answered anyway.

As far as I can guess (and you could ask PG), the Sheckleys are likely due to a particular magazine or book not renewing its copyright correctly.

US copyright laws and the continual changes are fracking crazy. So depending on what year it was you had to do something X years later etc, or lose it. Sometimes people forgot, or the thing went out of business etc.

Sheckley's wife is in charge of his interests I believe, or at least she was a few months ago.

Look up Greg Weeks project gutenberg rule 6 clearance wiki etc. if really interested in the technical details.

The overwhelming majority of stories and books are worthless in economic terms as far as the content not the object goes decades later, certainly, so the longer copyright laws are, the more they work against any given author being remembered.

The ones in the 'after the start of the 20th century and before the 21st before the internet period' quite likely are the ones that will suffer the most in terms of immortality of writing.

Jan 5, 2008, 12:56 pm

I like Lawrence Lessig's suggestion, something to the effect that, for copyrights older than some modest value - 20 years or so - someone would have to pay $1/year or so to maintain copyright, and supply contact for someone with authority to use those rights. Disney could hang on to Mickey forever, but many forgotten works would go into public domain, and their fans could reproduce them for others.

26airira First Message
Jan 8, 2008, 1:44 am

I was a very close of Bob Sheckley in the last 15 years of his life. He was my mentor and my friend. I spoke at his one year memorial here in Portland, Oregon.
I have been in close contact with his widow, Gail, and I am here to tell you that most of the Sheckley works on the web are illegal.
There are a few exceptions. Reborn Again was sold directly to the website; several audio versions of Bob's stories are scattered around the web.
But for the most part, those stories that you find skulking about in odd corners are in copyright violation.
This includes Project Gutenberg's use of the novel The Status Civilization. I have some highly contentious emails from the man who runs that site and he seems to be of the opinion that any doubt of copyright equates to carte blanche for his use of said material. His last word on the matter was basically, sue me if you can.
He was completely intransigent on the matter. The fact that the Estate desperately needs revenue from this and other Sheckley stories to settle unpaid debts meant nothing to him.
I urge everyone to reconsider the ethics of any site that will leap upon any dead writer's work the second they feel they can gain an advantage.
No prior notice was given to the Estate. No polite email requesting fair use. Just posting of the material and daring to be sued.
I have no financial interest in any of this. Bob was a dear friend and I am appalled at the tactics and ethics of web publishers who believe that anything goes until the courts say different.
I am especially upset with Project Gutenberg because other sites I have corresponded with cite Gutenberg as a "source" for accurate copyright info. Those other sites have responded positively and with due caution, deleting copyrighted material.
I urge you to not just read PG's "rules" but refer to revised Copyright law as well as recent WTO agreements which specifically speak to the concepts of International Recognition of standing copyrights, essentially globalizing copyright.
If this sounds like a rant, I apologize. A great man's work is being cannibalized for the voracious appetite of a content-driven web without conscience. If any of this matters to you, I urge you to speak up.
Ira Friedwald
Portland, Oregon

Jan 8, 2008, 2:45 am

So, reading between the lines the estate can't find proof of copyright renewal, in this case?

Edited: Jan 8, 2008, 11:35 am

But does the estate NEED copyright renewal? Isn't an author's work automatically copyrighted until 75 years after their death? That means whoever runs the Sheckley estate own the copyright and should be compensated for any use of material.

Ira Friedwald: Robert Sheckley still has a lot of fans in the SF community and I shall certainly do my best to speak out against anyone who is exploiting Mr. Sheckley's work and not playing by the rules. This is the first time I have heard of this situation--as an admirer of R.S.'s work I'm infuriated, as an author who might find his work similarly misappropriated in the future, I'm outraged.

There may initially have been a good motivation behind the Project Gutenberg notion but it should only feature works that are CLEARLY in the public domain (have at Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Voltaire) and if they do violate copyright, authors should act COLLECTIVELY to bring them down.

The Science Fiction Writers of America (or whatever it's called nowadays) was recently taken to task for over-stepping its bounds in the "Creative Commons" debate but Mr. Sheckley's situation sounds like EXACTLY the sort of issue the organization can rightfully sink its teeth into.

I look forward to hearing more about this. As LT members I think we should all be very conscious where we get our fiction from and as people who love books (and the authors who write them) we should stand firmly behind creators who worked long and hard and selflessly to tell the stories we love.

Jan 8, 2008, 10:32 am


No. Life+70 is the case now for most of the world.

In the past it was Life+50 for the UK. When it was changed to Life+70 in 1996 previous works which had become public domain were suddenly back in copyright if the author died after 1926.

Australia was similar to the UK but they did not apply it retrospectively so once into public domain always into public domain was the rule.

Canada is still Life+50 I think.

In the USA things were different. They worked on a 28 years and then a renewal with the Library Of Congress Copyright Office. This changed in 1978 to Life+70. The need for renewal was removed in 1992. Therefore works published before 1964 and NOT RENEWED are in the public domain. Looking at Cornell University's Copyright Duration table shows that it is a bit more complicated than that.

Now in the case of the Sheckley story in Project Gutenberg I assume that they have done their homework and checked the LoC Copyright Office for the renewal. Is it feasible that Sheckley's agents forgot to renew a story? I guess so. Even so that only makes it public domain in the USA. In Canada, Britain, Australia and most other places it would still be in copyright.

BTW - Project Gutenberg has stories by other authors like Poul Anderson, James Blish, and Fred Pohl.

Jan 10, 2008, 8:22 am

Mr. Friedwald,

Can you give us more information? Many of us have enjoyed Robert Sheckley's work a great deal, and I think would be happy to send a check to help pay off some of that debt and help his family. I know that doesn't actually solve the stolen-copyright problem, but it does do a little good, at least. A file download and a check does more for the estate than purchasing a used copy of The Status Civilization, copies of which start at $1.00 plus shipping at Abe Books.

Jan 10, 2008, 8:56 am

Thanks, Duke...

That's the response I was hoping to hear from LT members, SF readers and fans of Mr. Sheckley's. I've dropped a note Mr. Friedwald's way too and let's hope through efforts like these he can create enough of a buzz to embarrass the people who are exploiting the legacy of writers no longer with us for the crassest reasons imaginable. This is where we, as readers, can really step up to the plate and show tangible support for the scribes who worked so long and selflessly, often with little financial reward, on behalf of the printed word...

Jan 10, 2008, 8:58 am

...and please remember that there are other writers facing financial hardship and health problems out there--Jack Chalker's widow is in bad straits and Steven Brust has health issues. These folks have given so much to their fans and, hey, folks, here's your chance to repay them in some small way for entertaining you for decades, with little or nothing to show for it...

Jan 12, 2008, 1:01 am

Look, this is how this seems to be: The Status Civilization was last copyrighted in 1980 in England. The American copyright was, as far as I can tell, close to the cut off date. Unfortunately, only Bob knows exactly when.
There are two issues here. One, does the WTO Agreement allow for foreign copyrights to have force in the US? I think the answer is yes because certainly if this were a software matter, the property would be protected without this level of protest from any third party.
Second, where is the courtesy in all this? Project Gutenberg was very quick to jump on this copyright, with no notice to the Estate, no thought to asking for permission, no thought to alerting the Estate as to any possibility of losing the copyright. (And I don't know if the copyright IS lost. I doubt anyone does at this moment.)
The emails I have from PG are downright rude, angry and petulant. Their attitude seems to be, We beat you to it, it's ours. Tough luck.
I find that to be quite the opposite of what I considered PG to be. I think Bob would be more than a little appalled at their attitude. He did give them permission to use Bad Medicine as an mp3 file. But I feel they are taking advantage.
Is that what a non-profit dedicated to preserving past writing should be about?
Is this what you say to the widow of a famous writer: tough luck, it's ours?
PG has acted in bad faith and with a distinctly poor attitude.
I only wish things were more clear cut but it looks to me that it will take a large sum of money to dislodge these people from their point of view on the matter. That is something the Estate certainly doesn't have.
I had thought to perhaps bring this to light with the Authors Guild so that other authors would be more wary of the perils of Internet predators.
Perhaps you can help get the word out too.
Bob would be very pleased to see his words still have value.
Ira Friedwald

Jan 12, 2008, 1:28 am

Here's why The Status Civilization should be under copyright protection... is selling several editions (including a Kindle edition) but the page lists the publisher and publication date as the following...

# Mass Market Paperback
# Publisher: Ace Books (November 1979)
# ISBN-10: 0441785379
# ISBN-13: 978-0441785377

Since Ace Books is an AMERICAN publisher, copyright is renewed from 1979 on.
End of story.

Just try and convince all the people making money from this book now to stop.

Jan 12, 2008, 1:38 am

Authors of course only have copyright because of the goodwill of the public to start with, to pass laws to that effect, as no such thing actually exists in reality. So you can understand the general public being peeved about constant whining and extensions.

You expect Project Gutenberg to write to every author in this situation (presuming they could be found) on the billion to one chance that they actually did do the paperwork, and that they lost it, and the copyright office lost it, and all copies of those records were lost, and it turns up in a long lost relative's basement in a filing cabinet with a sign on the door reading 'beware of the leopard'?

Get real. The money it would take to do that would be a lot more than what the estate you are talking about is worth.

How much of their time do you think is already wasted by lawyers sending rubbish letters or people complaining, etc.?

You are right, digital preservation of work should be about that, and that only.

They should have zero organisational interest in and waste zero resources on charity for the families of dead writers. That would be for actual charities. Or Authors Guilds, or fan clubs, or whatever.

Jan 12, 2008, 1:41 am


It would be nice to be able to make up new laws to suit yourself that work like that, but sorry, it doesn't. :)

Jan 12, 2008, 1:55 am

If the estate needs money the fight in courts over copyright can be long and might not ever pay off. Finding a publisher to get his stuff back in print might be more constructive. Mark Twain's works are on PG but lots of publishers still make money from printing his works.

Contact the Theodore Sturgeon estate to see what they did to collect and reprint all his works. I have no idea how much income was/is generated by that project. Somebody probably knows the ins and outs they ran into.

Jan 12, 2008, 2:24 am

I vaguely remember reading - and Baen has done some projects like this - that the James H. Schmitz rights might have been a few thousand? Could be in one of Eric Flint's columns perhaps.

A project that did some fancy collectables like small press does, and then maybe a few trades and some electronic collections similarly, or something like that? As the latter can keep selling for however long...

You'd be better off hosting a Robert Sheckely Immortality Inc. 2 bucks a snag fundraising barbie than wasting money on lawyers and what looks like a guaranteed laydown loser.

Jan 12, 2008, 2:34 am

I don't expect Project Gutenberg to write every author since most of the authors are long dead and their works obviously in the public domain.
But since PG had corresponded directly with Bob in the past and could have easily dashed off an email to him/his wife about this, the issue is more about the fact that they couldn't wait to pounce on it.
Go to Amazon and see how many NEW copies of The Status Civilization there are, none of which are paying any money to the Estate for the right to publish the book.
This isn't like snapping up domain names for web sites. Or downloading a few songs without paying for them.
This is someone's legacy, work invested for a return for the future of one's heirs.
Mr. Sheckley may not have been the savviest businessman but that doesn't excuse others from stretching the limits of the law for their own greed and ego.
Let them write their own books if they want to publish things. Mr. Sheckley was barely cold when the knockoffs began to appear.
This isn't about charity at all, either. You create something of lasting value and then see what happens when people start to steal it.
Large companies go through the same stuff. It's like fake Rolexes out of China. It takes money to fight pirates. It isn't fair to say that the widow deserves nothing because she can't vigorously challenge thieves.
If it mattered to the fans of Sheckley's work, then crap like this would cease asap because no one would buy the knockoffs.
But in this world now, it's whatever you can get away with and screw everyone else.
Small people seem to feel its their right to take advantage if they can, even when they are wrong, even when it's illegal, even when they have slim chance of getting caught.
It's just a shame.

Jan 12, 2008, 6:01 am

But surely if Bob's widow has the paperwork OR the copyright office does (and that is easy to check) then it is an open and shut case. Without evidence of renewal (and being republished by Ace doesn't necessarily mean that the copyright was renewed) I am afraid that there is very little you can do. The whole legality relies on copyright not being renewed. If you cannot prove that copyright has been renewed then PG have done nothing illegal, nothing wrong, nothing underhand. They have obeyed the law 100%. Now you may disagree with the way the law works and that is you prerogative but what you have written above is tantamount to libel.

As for new editions of The Status Civilization there are hardcover and paperback published by Wildside Press - are you saying that they aren't paying royalties and that they are treating it as out of copyright in exactly the same way as Project Gutenberg?

"This is someone's legacy, work invested for a return for the future of one's heirs." - I have to say that is absolutely rubbish from a historic viewpoint of copyright. Also it seems a very poor bet. Most old works languish unpublished. I have seen very good analysis that shows nearly all work gains the massive majority (over 90%) of its remuneration in the first 30-35 years of being published. Even the big successful works.

As for some of the other online versions of Sheckley's work I am only going to comment on the SciFiction ones. Presumably SciFiction paid for web publishing rights for those stories (as they did their other authors). Whether they are overstepping the mark will be down to whether the web-publication was time-limited or not. As the SciFiction archive contains stories by lots of writers (some big-name very active current writers as well) I would presume that it would have been targeted by the SFWA if it were overstepping the mark.

Now some positive suggestions - for important or well loved writers there is always the possibility of a collected works set of books being put out by a small press. But what I think would work is if the text of the stories were put up on a website by the estate with a tip-jar (pay as much as you think it is worth). This can obviously be tested with just those stories that are already out there on the web. Say a nicely formatted version of The Status Civilization (maybe with notes if Sheckley made and kept notes whilst writing). It isn't going to produce a massive income but it would be more than at present as I believe that the cat cannot be put back in the box.

Edited: Jan 12, 2008, 9:23 am

I still find the attitude of the Project Gutenberg people maddening. To my mind, the point of PG was to digitally preserve works that have fallen into the public domain--if they have the slightest doubt if a work is eligible, they should make efforts to determine its status.

I've been going through the process of clearing rights for quotes I use in my latest novel and checked with the U.S. Copyright office on the terms for "fair use" and discovered those terms are vague--there are no hard and fast rules in terms of number of words you can use, etc. The Copyright office strongly advises that even if it's only a few words I seek to reprint, I should make every effort to clear matters with whoever own the rights to that author's work.

I find it hard to believe, knowing publishers, that Ace produced a 1979 edition without securing some kind of copyright assurances and protection at that time. Have they been contacted?

It sounds to me like someone needs to help the estate go through Sheckley's papers and find the necessary information. Rather than hiring lawyers and spending reams of money, an archivist could, for a fraction of the cost, find whatever was there and notify Gutenberg that, "yes, indeed, copyright is established, we have the proof so back the hell off". I cannot conceive of PG demurring because then their behavior would really leave them open to legal action.

Mr. Friedwald, unlike some of the other people here, I'm a writer and I have tremendous sympathy for Mr. Sheckley's situation. This matter should be of pressing concern to authors and their families. I urge you to keep talking about this. As another member of LibraryThing (Dukecom) has noted, Mr. Sheckley still has a lot of fans and friends in the SF community and if we can rally people, embarrass Gutenberg for their heavy-handedness, perhaps help aid the estate financially and preserve the legacy of a brilliant writer, we would be happy to lend a hand.

But I really do think an intensive look at Mr. Sheckley's records is an important first step. Here's a suggestion: what about donating his papers to a university or institution of higher learning? There are tax and financial benefits BUT the most important aspect is that part of the process involves a trained individual collating and cataloguing the author's files. Is this a viable option?

Please don't give up on this and let us know how we can lend a hand.

Jan 12, 2008, 3:27 pm


How do you know they didn't check? Surely the correct place to check about US copyright where there is doubt is the Copyright Office - and you can do the search online.

In 1979 The Status Civilization would still have been in copyright in the USA. The renewal can only be done in the 28th year - so in 1988.

According to Ira Friedwald above the real publishers that put out a real deadtree copy of The Status Civilization in 2007 are using the same criterion of out of copyright just like PG. Why isn't John Betancourt of Wildside Press getting the same opprobrium? As I see the law according to my sources upthread the book went out of copyright in 1989 and PG and anyone else could have published it years ago.

Of course the Copyright Office could be wrong but I don't think that is the safe way to bet.

Jan 12, 2008, 6:29 pm

Andy, I hear what you're saying but do YOU hear what Gutenberg is saying?

Their attitude is, we'll publish this and to hell with the wishes of the widow or the estate. Regardless of the legality, the ethics and optics are disgusting. How about a little sympathy for the writer's family?

When we start treating people like chattel, their work as product, we, as a society, are heading in the wrong direction, don't you think?

I read an account where the sister of the author of LEAVING LAS VEGAS tried to correct a Wikipedia entry on her deceased brother (I believe he took his own life) and they told her to piss off.

Where's the human element in all this, Andy? Tyson?

Maybe because you're not creators/writers you don't understand. There's more to this than a strict interpretation of copyright law and I really don't think you're grasping the full ramifications of PG's intransigence...

Jan 12, 2008, 7:27 pm

If the copyright wasn't renewed in 1988... why should the writer or his surviving relatives or estate expect to be given money for something they no longer own 20 years later?

Oh, and don't believe everything you read about Wikipedia. People who are against it like to exaggerate horror stories. Apparently, Erin O'Brien claimed to have edited out an inaccuracy from the article on her brother. Someone who has created a large number of articles on Wikipedia, but does not represent it, pointed out that no such edits were visible in the history (in, it has to be said, somewhat intemperate language). What's most likely is, she did something wrong, and lost the edit, and then turned her own mistake into yet another a Wikipedia horror story for her newspaper.

Edited: Jan 13, 2008, 1:35 am

Ian: Thanks for the clarification re: Wikipedia.

I guess there are legal issues and ethical considerations. While the latter have no weight in law, they do have moral weight. I hope other authors will learn from this and re-up all their copyrights. I defend mine with my fists and teeth but older writers, sick writers, impoverished writers, may not have the luxury.

Why don't authors get the same protections and special consideration Mickey fucking Mouse does? Aye, there's the rub...

Edited: Jan 13, 2008, 1:34 am

"Why don't authors get the same protections and special consideration Mickey fucking Mouse does? Ayes, there's the rub..."

By way of contrast to Walt Disney, I need only point out that much of the Fleischer Studio cartoon catalogue has been in public domain for quite a while. If the character properties of Betty Boop and KoKo the Clown are copyrighted, it's unlikely that they belong to anyone in the Fleischer family.
So it's not exclusively writers that this happens to.

Is the Sheckley family not getting any revenue from the NESFA anthologies?
Those are some nice looking volumes! I'm thinking of picking up the short story one...

Jan 13, 2008, 5:56 am


The NESFA anthologies will have come to some arrangement as the vast majority of Sheckley's output is still in copyright. Certainly anything written post-1963 is still in copyright. Also a lot of short stories were renewed when previous collections were published.


Cliff, there is no need to renew copyrights any more. All that went out in 1992. Your work will be protected for life+70 (for the US or Britain) or life+50 (in Canada) unless something major happens to the copyright law - and even then it is unlikely that the changes will apply retrospectively.

I agree writers should protect their copyrights where they have them however even amongst writers there is debate about how long copyrights should last. At the moment we could see work in copyright for over 150 years - someone could publish a book at 17 and live to 87 (not an overly old age these days). With increasing longevity that period of copyright looks like it will increase for the lucky ones. How much longer do you want?

BTW in 1961 the Copyright Office did a survey and only 7% of books had had copyright renewed (of course that was for works pre 1934). Maybe post-1961 authors were more diligent in renewing - I don't know. But it seems likely that there is a huge amount of public domain stuff out there which writers may think is protected. Of course the online records only record from 1978 onwards. So that gives 1951 - 1964 as a possible range of easily checkable dates for non-renewals of stories. I am sure that there will be people poring over old SF magazines and collections, checking copyright renewals and digitising the stories where no renewal exists.

Jan 13, 2008, 10:58 am


I guess the only good thing that might come out of this is that some obscure or forgotten works might be reclaimed, rediscovered. That's looking on the bright side. As for me, I want my work protected during my lifetime and that of my children, then I'd like to see it handed over to some charitable organization until the expiration date.

Thanks, as always, for adding your knowledge and thoughts to the discussion.

Edited: Dec 1, 2010, 12:38 pm

This Locusmag news item I just spotted leads me to think we might want to revisit this Gutenberg/copyright violation discussion. From the article:

"Has Project Gutenberg Failed Copyright Law?

"— posted Tuesday 30 November 2010 @ 12:19 pm UTC

"Astrid Anderson Bear & Greg Bear have released a statement on e-reads saying that Project Gutenberg has wrongfully voided copyrights in some works of fiction from the 1940s, 1950s, and even later, including many stories originally published in SF pulp magazines..."

Dec 1, 2010, 12:39 pm

BTW that "e-reads" touchstone to e.e.cummings happened because "e-reads" uses brackets around its name.

Dec 1, 2010, 2:18 pm

I'm not sure it affects the Sheckley case above.

I think the statement that works are copyright from creation (whether or not originally filed with the US Copyright Office) is absolutely correct and not once has it formed part of the argument above.

That "Authors of that era, and Anderson in particular, were very aware of the need to renew copyrights, and typically meticulously kept their copyright protections up to date." is debatable. Research has shown that the opposite seems to be the case. I would certainly expect novels to have a greater renewal rate than short stories (some of which may have been very inconsequential). Obviously some authors will be better at this than others and maybe Anderson was one of these.

The fact that "The Escape" is part of a serialisation of Brain Wave muddies the waters somewhat. I think that the change of policy with respect to serialised work is correct.

In essence we are no further forwards. If, and only if, the copyright has NOT been renewed on these early works then PG are quite at liberty to publish them in electronic form.

I would note that the Locus piece was incorrect when it said that PG considered any 50s magazine publication fair-game. PG has always used a "non-renewal" test AFAIK. I think that Newby's email response shows that they are looking for renewals and not original filing of copyright.

PG obviously cocked up on "The Escape" - maybe a true cockup not knowing it was part of Brain Wave, or a misunderstanding of the law regarding serials.

Dec 1, 2010, 3:00 pm

If a magazine purchased all rights to a story in 1938 then went out of business, dissolved the corporation, whatever a business does that equals death would those stories be in public domain? Am I incorrect in thinking that purchasing all rights includes ownership of the copyright?

Dec 1, 2010, 6:26 pm

Well, recently some corporations have laid claim to the past and long-out-of-production products of companies whose goodwill they have purchased. So, for example, if you want to manufacture and market a model aeroplane kit of the North American P-51 Mustang - which hasn't been made for years, has been fully documented by third parties, and has been seen in public often enough for anyone to produce a replica without reference to the original manufacturer's sources - you have to get a product licence from the Boeing Corporation because they have acquired the goodwill of North American and they lay claim to the Mustang as a Boeing product. There are other examples. The only winners in this one are the corporate lawyers.

Dec 2, 2010, 7:22 am


IANAL, but usually if a company goes broke, its assets wind up in the hands of its creditors. So we must assume that the story would have an owner. I recall that Larry Lessig has noted that there are many old works which are likely to be owned by someone, but no one knows who, and so they're likely to become forgotten because modern readers never get to encounter them.

Edited: Dec 2, 2010, 7:55 am

Data point: PG lists download counts for each item they have. "The Burning Bridge" has 553 downloads right now. The others run in the 200-400 range.

The Sheckley stories have smaller counts, only the two versions of "Bad Medicine" added together get above 200.

Dec 2, 2010, 8:34 am

I have a question about different versions of a work. PG has Space Viking by H. Beam Piper available and the transcriber’s note on the text states it is the serialized version from Analog. The note further states that “Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.” However, a quick check of the U.S. Copyright Office online database clearly shows that the title is one of the few Piper stories still under copyright. Is the serialized version considered a different work, or the same work?

Dec 2, 2010, 8:44 am


I think that the latest advice they have had is that the book copyright covers the serial version as well. See Newby's response I linked to earlier.

Dec 2, 2010, 4:23 pm

This message has been deleted by its author.

Mar 29, 2013, 2:26 pm

Two recent things:

1. Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley (New York Review Books Classics) was released in May 2012, edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem

2. The Neil Gaiman Presents audiobook imprint just released a new recording by John Hodgman of Dimension of Miracles, with an introduction by Gaiman and a postscript discussion between Gaiman and Hodgman

Champions like Lethem and Gaiman have boosted Scheckley's legacy in recent months.

Mar 29, 2013, 2:32 pm

John Hodgman! That should get Sheckley some attention.

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