Last week, the New York Times ran a story about a forthcoming new edition of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to the Times: “Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word ‘nigger’ is replaced by ‘slave,’ a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.” As a parenthetical, the Times also reported that the book substitutes “Indian” for “injun.” (Mercifully, the publisher did stop short of changing the book’s title.)

Needless to say, NewSouth Books’ decision to bowdlerize one of America’s greatest novels has received considerable criticism — not least because responsible readers of Huck Finn recognize that the story actually satirizes and demonizes the kind of racism that the n-word represents. English Professor Thomas Glave writes that the substitution “will neither erase nor vanquish the ugly history out of which the novel and the offensive word emerged.” Glave further observes that:

“An insistence on obfuscating the past and obscuring the truth of real events is itself violent; such obfuscation does violence not only to the memories of those who suffered, but to our own potential as human beings to remember, and who must be charged, toward our own greater humanity, never to forget.”

Glave’s observation raises some interesting questions. We all know that a public domain work is just that — it belongs to the public and anyone can reproduce it or change it as they see fit. But what if, as Glave suggests, changing a public domain work in a certain way results in harm? While there is clearly nothing wrong with NewSouth Books’ decision to publish its version of Huck Finn, is there any limit to what a person can do with a public domain work?

Thomas Bowdler and Captain Haddock

Before delving into these questions, let me first confirm that bowdlerize is a real word. The definition Merriam-Webster gives is, “to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.” The origin of the word is actually quite interesting: in 1818, a physician named Thomas Bowdler published a family-friendly version of Shakespeare’s plays, in which, among other things, Bowdler changed the death of Ophelia to an “accidental” drowning and omitted Romeo’s racy exchange with Benvolio about Juliet being unlikely to “ope her legs to saint-seducing gold” in Romeo’s presence. (Is it still dirty if modern audiences would have trouble understanding that it’s dirty?)

Bowdler’s efforts remind me of one of my favorite fictional characters from childhood — a foul-mouthed, rum-loving sailor named Captain Haddock, fromHergé’s Adventures of Tintin comic books. Instead of uttering profanity, Captain Haddock was prone to outbursts such as “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!” and “Ten thousand thundering typhoons!” Perfect bowdlerization of a sailor’s mouth. (Although query how Captain Haddock could have coherently uttered such slurs after imbibing large quantities of rum.)

Boldly Bowdlerizing Where No Bowdlerizers Have Gone Before?

Getting back to Huck Finn, NewSouth Books’ new edition hardly marks new territory. The modification of public domain works happens all the time and for many different reasons. Some of these efforts are creative and admirable…

Others, not so much…

Ray Comfort’s version of Darwin’s Origin of Species is “modified” and contains a 50 page introduction which slanders Darwin and attempts to link the theory of evolution to Nazism and Eugenics.

The “Comfort version” of Darwin’s Origin of Species actually helps define our inquiry. Although Comfort only added an introduction, we can easily imagine him (or some other fanatic) changing the actual text of a work by inserting lies or intentional scientific inaccuracies designed to discredit the original, and then selling the “new edition” without telling anyone about the changes.

Moral Rights

If Darwin or Twain were still alive, this hypothetical might get us talking about their moral rights. Moral rights, as defined by the Berne Convention, include an author’s “right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation.” Alas, the United States does not have such extensive moral rights as other countries, with American courts seemingly regarding them as just another one of those namby pamby European things, like soccer, or man bags, or soccer players carrying man bags. And the moral rights that do exist are only applicable to authors of works of visual arts — and only while the work is protected by copyright. Once the work is in the public domain, an author and his or her heirs are out of luck.

False Designation of Origin

For a while there, it looked like authors in Twain’s position could rely on the “false designation of origin” provisions of the Lanham Act, i.e., the U.S.’s trademark law. For example, in the mid-1970s, Terry Gilliam and the other members of the Monty Python comedy troupe succeeded in blocking ABC from airing versions of its BBC television programs that had been sanitized (read: mutilated) for U.S. broadcast by arguing that viewers would be deceived into believing that the Monty Python crew was responsible for the disjointed, unfunny, nonsensical schlock that came out of the editing process. In 2003, however, the Supreme Court seemingly killed this line of argument by holding that, for purposes of the Lanham Act’s prohibition on “false designation of origin,” the “origin” of a creative work was its distributor or the manufacturer of physical copies, and not its writer/creative source. Not a fan of “Dead Parrot,” Justice Scalia?

False Advertising

Instead, we should be thinking about false advertising laws. While you can’t stop someone from modifying a public domain work, no one has the right to deceive others. At a certain point, it makes sense that there should be a limit on what people can do with a public domain work. Imagine going into a bookstore and purchasing Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and getting an “edited” version in which Mowgli teaches Baloo, Bagheera and King Louie about how to reach enlightenment through veganism and self-immolation. (To me the two seem related).Baloo and Bagheera certainly wouldn’t be interested (Louie might) and you’d clearly have a case for breach of contract. You also might have a case for false advertising. While you can do just about anything you want with a public domain work, you can’t lie about what you did with it.

The real takeaway here is that the next time someone tries to sell you a false copy of your favorite public domain work, just remember to use my modified version of Captain Haddock’s expletives if you feel the need to curse at them: Billions of Bilious Blue Blistering Bowdlerizers! Or just say, “No thanks.” Either way.