The story of how Barnes & Nobles e-book version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace replaced all uses of the word ‘kindle’ with the work ‘nook’ has filled the book-blog world during the past few days. The edits were first noticed by Phillip of the Ocracoke Island Journal. Phillip assumed it was a “sophomoric and/or commercial prank” by the company. The comments which Phillip’s article received were, of course, full of righteous indignation at the “sacrilege” of the unauthorized editing. There is a good deal of debate about whether this is an accident of hasty editing or part of a Nook marketing plan (the former seems more likely to me).

I am coincidentally reading Adrian Johns excellent history of copyright and publishing Piracy, and was interested to find the same sort of editing going on in the mid 1700s when Dublin reprinters were battling with the London book trade.

In the context of a duel between two Dublin theaters in 1760-61, James Hoey craftily substituted the name of Barry for his bitter rival David Garrick in a reprint of Smollett’s Launcelot Greaves. … Fidelity, as always, was not to be taken for granted (155-56).

The idea that “the copyrighted word should not be changed under any circumstances unless it is noted that it has been” always seemed self-evident. It was not so in the early years of the publishing industry, before copyright had been firmly established by statute and custom. That copyright, however, was built on the idea of the written word as being somehow immutable, the way speech is not. In the digital age, that immutability is rapidly shifting. With modern recording devices, the spoken word has become immutable while the written is increasingly malleable and impermanent.

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