Fake Classics Out of Copyright: Bot-writing Jack London

I read all kind of books all the time but this one was even more of an outlier than usual. I won’t go into why but I wanted to read the original text of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, about life in the slums of East London in the early 1900s. Jack London is one of those writers who people over fifty think they might have heard of. His books were mostly published between 1903 and 1914, and are remarkable for being based on the author’s first hand research in the places he wrote about. He is an early populist anthropologist who mostly used his fact for fiction.  People loved his sensationalist stories serialised in newspapers and later published as books. Probably his best known is The Call of the Wild (1903). London spent over a year living in the Yukon to research his story. Set during the 1890s Klondike gold rush its central character is a dog named Buck. Buck was stolen from his comfortable home and forced to become a sled dog in Alaska.

First edition cover of The Call of the Wild, New York, Macmillan Company, 1903. cover art by Paul Bransom (1885-1979) or possibly Charles Bull (1874-1932) –

I don’t recall reading this book as a child but it would have been right up my alley. It certainly has echoes in my own novelette Suburban Gigolo, about a cat stolen from his home in Sydney’s Inner West in order to become a Facebook model. Sadly it’s never had the popularity of The Call of the Wild but you can order it from Amazon.

Remember if you are in Australia you need to order from the amazon.com.au site: see brief extract and link at the end of this post.

I would like to write more about Jack London but that will have to wait. This post is about what I found when I tried to locate The People of the Abyss online. Like The Call of the Wild it is out of copyright (1923 is the current cut-off) and early editions are rare and expensive. But I thought someone might have rescued it so off to Amazon I went and there I found several editions mostly with el cheapo dodgy covers. Luckily I used the Look Inside feature and discovered that this book which seemed to be Jack London’s was a fake.  I think it has been translated from some other language into English by a bot (automated translation program) and some enterprising scammer(s) have put it on sale for around $5.00. It is almost completely unreadable. Here is a sample sentence from near the beginning of the book:

“And they waved their palms vaguely inside the route where the sun on rare activities can be visible to upward thrust”.

Yes, I agree there is a certain beauty and poetic wonder to be had from reading these bot translations. It is another form of emerging literature, perhaps. But that’s not what one expects when paying $5 for a Kindle download of an English-language classic. There is no publisher credited. I then discovered the whole original text is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

I’ve already suggested to Amazon that this book should be taken down at once. It is a horrible misrepresentation of an important original text. If there is any way of checking on these republications of out-of-print works it should be implemented immediately. I imagine Amazon and other e-book publishers/distributors will be flooded by this kind of rip-off as more and more books come out of copyright. In the meanwhile, make sure to check the text before you hit the Pay button.

POSTSCRIPT: (6th June 2020) A couple of days after sending a review notice to Amazon I discovered that the offending text was no longer available there. But there were several other versions and as I started to check them it was apparent that some were also mock-ups or distorted versions of the original text, each issued under a different cover, none credited with publishers. The flood of fakes and distortions makes it almost impossible for a purchaser to know what they are buying.

Buy this version

There is one genuine reproduction of the original text with notes and wonderful photographic illustrations, for $A3.95, and it is a real bargain. Here are a couple of images from the book. Apparently Jack London himself took his own photographs. He was even more of a pioneering ethnographer than I originally imagined.

Locals of East London
Not sure what this image refers to: needs closer reading/research
Two drunken women fighting: I am sure this is a staged photo
An engraving – possibly used for a newspaper article based on an original Jack London photograph
Here’s the link for Australian buyers: a bargain at A$1.35

Copyright: for and against

In my last post I mentioned that I was seeking permission to use two lines from a country and Western song sung by Ernest Tubb in 1959 as an opener for my memoir. I still haven’t heard anything back from the copyright holders, a large transnational organisation which holds copyright on a huge number of songs.

This has led me to further musings on copyright as a concept and practice. There are many countries in the world which appear to have no copyright laws or if they do, they don’t enforce them especially if the writing being used comes from somewhere else. Imagine my surprise a couple of decades ago to find my book Nature and Nurture published in a Third World country, in English and pretty much in full although without the photographs and someone else’s name on the cover. But somehow there seemed a rightness to that. The book is unobtainable anywhere as the Australian publishers never republished it, and made no effort to make it available anywhere outside Australia. Practically no libraries in the world hold it. This of course was before self-publishing. If people somewhere else want to read my book, this was a way of doing it, and did it matter that much who was the author?

These libertarian thoughts are very much outside the frame today. Everyone is so precious about their rights over a few sentences that whole books can be pulped for some minor bit of plagiarism. You are legally vulnerable even where the copyright holders don’t answer queries or have gone out of business. This, in an era when visual and written information can be circulated as never before.

Copyright is an issue quite apart from libel and privacy breaches. My inability to finish Regret Horizon is in large part due to my anxieties over privacy issues which remain unresolved.

I wonder how much one would have to change the text to claim that those two lines were no longer subject to copyright? I’ll play with that idea, but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.