Publishing date and the public domain: When a work doesn’t enter the public domain

During his lifetime, British author E.M. Forster received awards, honours, and all kinds of platitudes for the quality of his writing. His novels have been made into films and plays, and have stood the test of time. For anyone that isn’t familiar with his works, they are almost certainly available through a library, but also available as public domain works.

However, despite the fact that Forster was writing at the outset of the 20th century, one of his works may not be available in the public domain. The novel, Maurice, is to put it crudely, a gay love story. Fearing retribution for having written favourably of a homosexual, Forster buried the book and requested it be published posthumously. He was, apparently, afraid that the book would destroy his career. With his death in 1970, Forster’s “unpublishable” manuscript finally saw the light of day.

However, despite the book being a very worthwhile read, especially as a quality LGBTQ+ work, it isn’t available in the public domain. Despite other, and Forster’s most critically acclaimed works, shedding previous copyright protection, Maurice’s later publication date (1971) shields it from joining the author’s other novels. That doesn’t mean it isn’t accessible, but not in the public domain.

It is a curious situation that a book was published some 60 years or so after it was written, and remains separated from other works in Forster’s oeuvre. The Trial by Franz Kafka was published posthumously; although, it is now in the public domain, along with other works. The publication date in this case is the main issue. Originally, Kafka’s original works became public domain, but the translations which were published later did not enter the public domain at the same time, or at all. The same is the situation with Maurice.

It can be purchased or borrowed from a library, but it remains under copyright protection. It is an anomaly, but not a unique one. If you are interested, the book is very good. It was chosen as a selection for the book club I’m a part of and will be reviewed once we’ve completed the novel. This article was put together to cover a unique trait of the novel, but not one I had wanted to discuss at length during a proper review.





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