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Virginia Law Review Online


Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend in the publishing industry of hiring sensitivity readers to review books for offensive tropes or racial, gender, or sexual stereotypes. In February 2023, for instance, reports that Puffin Books had edited several classics by Roald Dahl—in consultation with sensitivity readers—generated immediate backlash from the public and several renowned authors and politicians. While most of that backlash focused on accusations of “censorship” and “cancel culture,” this Essay examines an actual legal consequence of revising classic books: the creation of copyrightable derivative works in updated editions. Derivative works are new works based on or built off of preexisting works. The creator of a derivative work can obtain copyright protection by adding sufficient original expression to the preexisting work. The creation of derivative works, especially from public domain works, is generally encouraged because derivative works can foster creativity, disseminate culture and knowledge, and allow original works to reach new audiences. However, this right can also be misused and misapplied. Specifically, while copyright in derivative works only extends to the new materials added to an underlying work, there are instances where overreaching copyright claims and ambiguous lines between the original work and the derivative work can have the practical effect of extending exclusive rights in the original underlying works. This Essay examines instances where editors have claimed copyright in new illustrations or new editions of classic books. More specifically, it considers the potential creation of copyrightable derivative works when editors revise and publish new editions that remove cultural, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. It argues that copyright law must strike a balance to ensure that follow-on creativity is encouraged and editors are rewarded for updating classic books to suit a modern readership, but it must also guard against the inadvertent consequence of diminishing the public domain of classic books.