I spent some time today reading the online French translations of the poems of Sidonius Apollinaris. I was very struck by the way that the poet appeals repeatedly to the works of the early empire, to Horace and Sallust and Varro and Tacitus. I saw no mention of any later writers, indeed.
This evening I found myself wondering whether the Loeb edition and translation, Sidonius. Poems and letters, tr. W. B. Anderson, Harvard, 1936, was actually out of copyright in the USA. (Anderson died in 1959, I learn, so his work won’t come out of copyright in the European Union until 2029, by which time most of us will doubtless be dead). I suspect that it is. Copyright at that period was for 28 years, and could be renewed for a further 28 years. But I found no evidence that it had been renewed.
The situation is complicated, for works between 1923 and 1964, by the “copyright restoration” for foreign works that followed the US signing of the Berne convention in 1994. A fascinating paper by Peter B. Hirtle discusses this subject, and makes the following, startling statements:
It has long been assumed that most of the works published from 1923 to 1964 in the US are currently in the public domain. Both non-profit and commercial digital libraries have dreamed of making this material available. Most programs have recognized as well that the restoration of US copyright in foreign works in 1996 has made it impossible for them to offer to the public the full text of most foreign works. What has been overlooked up to now is the difficulty that copyright restoration has created for anyone trying to determine if a work published in the United States is still protected by copyright. …
This paper has demonstrated that it is almost impossible to determine with certainty whether a work published from 1923 through 1963 in the US is in the public domain because of copyright restoration of foreign works.
What idiots our politicians are! What knaves the publishing lobbyists must be, to cause so much nuisance for so little gain for anyone, including themselves!
All the same, I tentatively conclude, after reading Hirtle’s paper carefully, that Anderson’s translation of the poems of Sidonius Apollinaris is indeed now in the public domain in the USA.
I have also been reading a paper discussing whether Sidonius actually criticises Majorian, in carmen 5, the Panegyric for Majorian.. There is a long section in the panegyric in which a polemic against Majorian is placed in the mouth of Pelagia, wife of the deceased Aetius. Perhaps this does reflect the nervousness of the Gallo-Roman supporters of the unfortunate emperor Avitus towards the military newcomer Majorian. Desperate times, suspicion everywhere, harsh punishments for speaking the wrong thing, supporting the wrong candidate for the throne, while the empire fell apart … such times make men adopt whatever shifts they can.
Does it matter now? Well, only inasmuch as parallels might be drawn for later history. The assassination of Majorian in 461 by his own prime minister, the sinister Ricimer, made the fate of Gaul — to become France – certain. The western empire itself had only fifteen more years to live. And Majorian himself lives now only in the portrait drawn of him by Sidonius, partly in the panegyric, but more in the letters.
Yet … Majorian does indeed live in that portrait. He failed to save the Roman state. Probably no-one could have done so at that stage.
Yet, because of the words of Sidonius, we, fifteen centuries later, are discussing him.
UPDATE (20/7/2012): I find that vol. 1 of the Loeb, which includes all the poems, is in fact online at Archive.org, here.
-  At remacle.org. ↩
-  Peter B. Hirtle, Copyright Renewal, Copyright Restoration, and the Difficulty of Determining Copyright Status, D-Lib Magazine 14.7/8, 2008. Online here. ↩
-  Philip Rousseau, Sidonius and Majorian: The Censure in “Carmen” V, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 49, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 2000), pp. 251-257. JSTOR url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4436579 ↩