A certain famous philosopher from the 19th century made an arrangement of a few hundred of his notebook writings that was intended to be the outline for a book. He didn't live long enough to actually write the book, but some scholars are interested in working out what form it might have taken. This is because the arrangement is incomplete: it lists a bunch of texts and numbers them, and assigns about 2/3 to one of the four main divisions in an accompanying table of contents, but it doesn't specify which subdivisions they belong in, or how they should be ordered. Hence the scholarly speculation.

I'm working on a web app that would allow scholars to work on arrangements of these texts: basically assign them to sections, order them, etc. All of the texts I'm using are taken from an online scholarly edition of the author's works. Now these texts were written almost 150 years ago, and I'm using them in the original language, not in English translation, so I'm not infringing on the copyright of a more recent translation.

However, the online edition I took the texts from is basically a digitized version of the standard scholarly print edition, funded by a few major organizations. Because the author's originals were notebook material, the editors of this standard edition had to distill them into printable texts, which were never set in print that way by the original author.

My question is: does the publisher of the standard edition hold the copyright for their print renditions of these texts, or are their renditions public domain because the texts themselves were written so long ago? The author has been dead for well over 100 years.

  • 1
    Is it just a cleaned up/corrected OCR of the original text with no added "creative" input? Jun 2, 2021 at 22:41
  • See §§ 70 f. Urheberrechtsgesetz. There might be a right through the edition, but such a right only stays valid for 25 years.
    – K-HB
    Jun 2, 2021 at 23:12
  • @GeorgeWhite There is no creative input, just taking messy and chaotic notebook material and trying to put it into a printable form. But that does require a degree of interpretation, and in some cases there would be slightly different ways of distilling the notebook material into a printed text. I guess the question is whether that counts as "creative" or not. (Also, I should add that this is considered the authoritative edition of this author's writings, and the editors are not generally considered to have had any creative role beyond arranging the material for publication.)
    – mnigl
    Jun 3, 2021 at 1:16
  • You keep saying "distilled". That sounds like summarized. If it just helping the OCR correcting (with some judgement) hard to read characters it isn't creative, in my opinion. If distilling is more than that it might be. Jun 3, 2021 at 3:38

1 Answer 1


If only such content as is in fact in the public domain is reprinted, it will not matter that a later edition that is protected also includes the public domain content. No later edition can confer copyright protection on a work already in the public domain. However, if the older content is so rewritten in the new edition as to be a new, if derivative, work, that would be protected by a new copyright.

Also, if creativity were used in the selection and arrangement of texts from a public domain source, copying that selection and arrangement could be an infringement.

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