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[page 16] The Ace Tolkiens by donald a. wollheim A few days after the Ace edition of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING appeared, two unprecedented things happened, both pleasant and both of the same nature: we were applauded by the competition. Unprecedented, for believe me, the paperback book business is highly competitive and highly combative -- and when an act by one company can actually bring forth open admissions of praise, that's something to be proud of. One was in the form of a letter from an official of another paperback outfit, a big one. It read, in part: "Congratulations on the publication of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING; it is, indeed, the publishing coup of the year and I have nothing but admiration for your imagination and foresight." The other applause came in the nature of a phone call from the esteemed editor of one of the other paperback firms also noted for its science fiction releases. After congratulating Ace for the Tolkien scoop, this editor went on to say that he had been trying for three years to negotiate a sale with Houghton Mifflin and had been utterly unable to get anywhere. What, he went on to ask, was our secret? The secret, if such it ever was, was simply a little knowledge of the most elementary copyright law. The Tolkien saga had never been copyright @copyrighted@ in the United States. This was no secret to me -- I had know it from the moment I'd first bought a [page 17] copy of the Houghton Mifflin edition in a book store when it had first appeared in 1954. One glance at the page following the title page startled me. No copyright, no date of publication. Just the line "Printed in Great Britain," although the name of the publisher was an American firm and the place of publication the U.S.A. It was apparent that this first American edition consisted simply of sheets printed in England and imported. Now, usually this would be accompanied by a proper U.S. copyright notice. To obtain this, back in 1954, required the filling out of a few government forms, usually at the time of the first British edition. This would secure what was called an "ad interim" copyright, which would protect the work for a certain length of time -- six months or eighteen, I'm not sure now -- sufficient to enable a U.S. edition to appear. Plainly, this elementary protection had not been secured. Why wasn't it done? Who had undermined Tolkien's rights in this country? I don't know. Perhaps the length of time between the first British edition and the first U.S.A. edition had been too long. Or perhaps the American publisher, figuring that the book was too obscure to take the trouble, had decided just to bring in a few hundred bound copies and not bother with copyright complications. The blame lies somewhere in the hard-cover publishing operation...or maybe with the author's literary agent in London...or somewhere.... Anyway, obviously the guess that the work would have only a few hundred oddball buyers proved wrong. The darned books continued to sell steadily, though quietly, through the years, going into small printing after small printing. Somewhere along the line, somebody started to worry about that lack of a U.S. copyright and inserted a line in later editions which said the work was copyright under the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention is a treaty of fourteen countries, mostly European, and the United States is not a signatory. Britain is. This little line has apparently fooled a lot of people into believing it constitutes a U.S. copyright -- and apparently the author is among those it helped keep in the dark. At various times in the past, Ace Books has asked about the paperback rights to these works. They were big, they were fantasy rather than science fiction, and probably not right for the public at those times, but we did ask. We got the same replies that Houghton Mifflin had been giving all paperback reprinters: No. They would not negotiate reprint rights. I knew, of course, that they couldn't legally sell anyone exclusive rights -- which is what any paperback reprint contract requires. But we were interested anyway in seeing what sort of a deal could be made. So were the other outfits. But Houghton Mifflin plainly knew they were on touchy ground. They couldn't admit outright that the works were in public domain, that they had nothing exclusive to sell. They simply declined to discuss paperback sales. (Hence the frustration of our esteemed competitors.) In the past couple of years it has been apperent that the taste for sword-and-sorcery has picked up very considerably -- possibly as a result of the revival of Burroughs in paperbacks, also attributable to Ace's copyright studies -- and that Tolkien was becoming known. It looked as if the very heavy expense of bringing out THE LORD OF THE RINGS might now be seriously considered, which we did early this year. The books were big, and they were still obscure as far as the younger level of the reading public was concerned, so they still represented a greater risk than usual. Printmg them would present technical problems, too. But we decided to go ahead with the first one. [page 18] Should we have asked Houghton Mifflin again, or informed them of our plans? Or should we have written Dr. Tolkien in advance? Please bear in mind that this paperback book industry is very, _very_ competitive -- and that we were in possession of what might be a valuable conmercial secret. To let the cat out of the bag could well be disastrous and could lead to other editions appearing at virtually the same time. We had no sensible course to follow but to go ahead, in top secrecy, to prepare our editions. Which we did, and the result you know. Now, there have been some tales reaching us of various persons angrily claiming that we have "pirated" these books or that we have "robbed" the author of his income and rights. Curiously enough, at least one of these charges seemed to emanate from a science fiction author who is one of the strongest advocates of open free competition and a writer of "might makes right" stories. And it would seem that Dr. Tolkien himself has written a couple of correspondents in concern over what he thinks are "pirate" editions. Literary piracy means infringement of copyright -- and we have infringed no copyrights. Dr. Tolkien, apparently, simply was never told the score about his U.S. editions. He should reserve his anger for the source of his deprival. Further, as in the case of Edgar Rice Burroughs, we're perfectly willing to pay the author for his work -- and we've stated both publically and in a message to Tolkien that we want to make an arrangement with him for such payments. To me, the curious thing about all this is that the fan personalities who seem to be upset about this never uttered a peep during the Ace Burroughs revival. Evidently their curious senses of "ethics" are reserved only to writings they like. However, they should rest easy anyway. We're not pirating anything. It would never have been possible for anyone to do any mass-edition Tolkien unless it was done as Ace did it. And I'm firmly of the belief that the Ace editions will do more to boost Dr. Tolkien's prestige and income than anything that has happened to him in years.