The awful history of Brockelmann’s GAL (and why it is in the state it is)

Six years ago, I wrote a post in which I roundly attacked Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Literatur for its copious failings.  Today I discovered online a piece which explained exactly why it is the mess it is.

Would you believe: it’s because of German copyright law?

The article that I found by Jan Just Witkam, “Brockelmann’s Geschichte revisited”, turns out to be the preface to a 1996 reprint of Brockelmann.  The story is rather a racy one!

Carl Brockelmann had always wanted to publish an updated reprint of the first edition of GAL. Alongside his numerous other activities he had recorded additions and corrections in his interleaved copy of the edition of 1898-1902. That first edition was published by E. Felber, a small publisher in Weimar and later in Berlin. He had agreed to publish Brockelmann’s edition of Ibn Qutayba’s ‘Uyun al-Akhbar on the condition that he would have the right to publish another work by Brockelmann which would yield him more profit than Ibn Qutayba. Brockelmann agreed and offered him his GAL, a project about which he had already been thinking for quite a while. This decision would have far-reaching consequences for generations of students of Arabic literature. Felber proved to be a crook and Brockelmann was not his first or only victim. When the typesetting and printing of half of the first volume of Ibn Qutayba’s text had been completed, the work was stopped and Felber disappeared. Some time later he re-emerged and fulfilled his engagements albeit in a reduced form, restricting the publication to four volumes, whereas Brockelmann had had ten volumes in mind. Brockelmann was forced to pay if he wanted the work to proceed, a classic trick. To appease Brockelmann’s anger for a while Felber gave him a typewriter, his first. Brockelmann grudgingly accepted it. GAL, which in the contract with Felber was Brockelmann’s subsidy to finance the Ibn Qutayba edition, was printed more or less simultaneously with the Ibn Qutayba edition, but instead of the one thousand copies which he was allowed to produce. Felber had three thousand copies printed, thereby cashing in for himself on a possible second and third edition. Three thousand copies is quite exceptional for any Orientalist publication where print runs usually do not exceed a few hundred copies. But there was more mishap to come. During several involuntary peregrinations. Felber (who was always on the run from his creditors and authors) had lost part of his stock, the printed sheets of about half of the second volume of GAL. Complete copies of GAL. became a rare item and it took a long time before Felber made a photographic reprint of those lost sheets. GAL thereby became a work that, for many years, one could only procure through the antiquarian book trade, if at all. Later on. it was also Felber who hindered the publication of a new edition, since he had so much old stock left. Recourse to juridical action by Brockelmann was to no avail. The German copyright law apparently could not be applied. The book was considered a commodity that, once sold, transferred ownership. The author, who in such a situation was considered to be the former owner, could never again exercise a right to his work. The only way to regain the rights on the book was if someone was to buy the entire remaining stock. During Felber’s lifetime this proved to be impossible, and also after Felber’s death the successors to his estate asked such an extravagant price for the remaining copies of GAL that this possibility proved to be impractical.

Brockelmann then found the director of Brill’s of Leiden, Mr. Th. Folkers, ready to publish the additional data in three supplementary volumes, which appeared between 1937-1942. In order to maintain the connection between the original two volumes and the three supplements, the page-numbers of the original edition were constantly referred to. At the end of each supplementary volume, additions and corrections to the original edition were included. The indexes in the third supplement had references to both the original two volumes of 1898-1902 and the three newly published supplements.

It was only after the publication of the third supplementary volume that it became possible for Brill’s to acquire the rights to the original work. Then nothing stood in the way of an updated second edition of the two original volumes. With ample reference to the supplementary volumes these were published in 1943-1949.

The pagination of the first edition of GAL had been the source of reference for the supplementary volumes and they had been included in the indexes of the supplements. Now, in the new edition of the two original volumes, it was to be that same, old, pagination that would be used. This is why the new edition of the two original volumes has the page-numbers of the first edition retained in the margins. And it is to those marginal page numbers that the indexes of the entire new set refer. It is all perfectly logical if one takes the printing history of the book into account, but for the newly initiated bibliographer it is a source of bewilderment and confusion.  The use of the marginal page-numbers is, therefore, not just an innocent peculiarity in which Carl Brockelmann indulged, but a complication imposed upon each and every user of the book, now and in the future.

As I have commented before, German copyright law is a menace.  It is a menace because it appears to be drafted entirely with the interests of publishers in mind, and with no regard to the public interest.   The dominance of Germany in the EU means that this evil system has been exported throughout that unhappy region.

We still need an English language translation of Brockelmann.  But who would do it?  And who, given the copyright nasties, could do it?


6 thoughts on “The awful history of Brockelmann’s GAL (and why it is in the state it is)

  1. My merely amateur opinion would lead to the question, if Brockelmann died in 1956, wouldn’t at least the Brill stuff be out of copyright in most of the world from 1 January 2027?

    Would one need to discover when Felber died and add 70 years re. volumes 1-2?

    In any case, I see his German Wikipedia article has an External Link to a useful search of works in the Internet Archive (though the only item I’ve checked is some sort of scan of the first two volumes):

  2. Dear Roger, The English translation of Brockelmann is well underway, with volume 4 published just two weeks ago. Please check out the Brill website. Also, vol. 5 (to be published early 2018) will contain a much-needed list of abbreviations.

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