Coming of Age in Samoa, open access

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa with William Morrow & Company. She did not copyright her book, possibly because copyright was only a few years old in the US and the idea had still not sunk in. However, when it became clear that the book would be a consistent earner, she did copyright it, and it has been locked up tight since then.

Luckily, the good folks are have a scan of the original 1928 edition without a copyright mark. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this text is essentially now free for all, provided you use and circulate this edition.

Image of the original edition, from Wikimedia.
Image of the original edition, from Wikimedia.

This is just one example of the many, many important works of anthropology that are legally available for circulation, but which people haven’t located, or done due diligence to make sure that the pieces truly are open access.

So when was the last time you actually sat down and read Coming of Age in Samoa? Why not download it today and try a chapter or two?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “Coming of Age in Samoa, open access

  1. Rex: Coming of Age in Samoa was copyrighted by William Morrow on August 23, 1928 (A 1053001 — see the catalogue of copyright entries N.S. 25 (1):1281, entry 8691 of the U.S. Archives. It seemed unlikely that a major publisher would publish any book without copyright in 1928 — the modern U.S. copyright act was passed in 1909, and created the possibility of extending copyright for 56 years. If Mead herself copyrighted Coming of Age, it might have been when the Morrow copyright expired in 1956. In any event, a book does not need to display a copyright symbol to be protected by copyright, and I’m sure that the IP attorneys for have made sure that they’re on good legal ground here, as unlikely as that seems….

  2. Actually, a book published in the U.S. before 1977 without a copyright notice failed to gain copyright protection for failure to comply with formality requirements. However, I do not speak to this book in question because I haven’t looked into it.

    Copyright determination is difficult because the laws have changed repeatedly, but there are very good “public domain calculators” on line. Peter Hirtle’s on the Cornell website is the best:

    By the way, the Archive has a great cache of anthropology classics on it, much Evans-Pritchard, the first English translation of The Gift… keep looking!

  3. I use, like, everyday. And I think other people should as well. There is a lot on there and they do their best to make it legal and legit. Lowie, Sapir, Malinowski, etc. Its all there if you dig.

    As Mary points out, the book has no mark, which is required by law afaik ianal. The relation of the edition and the filed 1928 claim is not clear to me. I am guessing that only the first runs of the book lacked a marked and further printings had them. We’ll have to see. Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote this post was to see what sort of clarification/pushback I’d get.

  4. Rex: The copy of the scanned book at is lacking pages that seem to have been removed. I don’t have a copy of the first edition of Coming of Age, but I’ll bet that the original does have a perfectly legit copyright notice in it. I think it likely that the scanned copy at is a damaged copy — you can even seen taped pages in the scan — and that the copyright notice appears on pages missing from the copy they used. Again, William Morrow in 1928 was not some novice publishing house, and it would be bizarre for them to publish any book without the appropriate copyright notice — that would not even be a rookie mistake. But the solution could be just days away: I found a copy of the 1928 first printing on and I’ve ordered it and will check.

  5. Thanks Barbara. I look forward to seeing how this works out. I should say that there are other causes for the lack of copyright than just a rookie mistake: some anthropologists (such as Leslie White, of the same vintage as Mead) did not copyright some of their work for ethical reasons. Several of Mead’s AMNH monographs do not carry copyright marks. So there is more than one way to explain how things went down.

  6. Rex: Sorry to persist, but I just heard from Mary Catherine Bateson that she has contacted the current publisher (Harper) about possible copyright violation. Dr. Bateson’s generous comment was that an error due to a damaged or incomplete copy of the first edition of Coming of Age would be less serious than an intentional violation of copyright, and I agree and suspect that this is precisely what happened.

    Mary: As you probably know, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extends the copyright of all works registered for copyright after 1 January 1923 to 95 years after the date of first publication. Coming of Age in Samoa should, therefore, be covered by copyright until 2023.

  7. No worries Barbara — as I said, I wrote the post to get clarification/pushback. OA is all about doing the legal thing (while, of course, pushing that the right thing become legal). Maybe if I could get hold of scans of the first couple of pages of the book (from you?) I’ll write a second post updating this one.

  8. Rex: I will certainly let you know what I find — but I do think it’s worth keeping in mind that Mead did register the copyright to Coming of Age on 23 August 1928, so any lack of a copyright mark or notice in the published book (if that turns out to be the case) is more likely to have been the publisher’s oversight than her principled stand against copyright a la Leslie White. And the complete absence of any page of publication information in the scanned copy should be a giveaway: a commercial publisher such as Morrow almost invariably fills the title page verso with loads of publishing details.

    I’ll leave it to my IP friends to sort out the AMNH publication issues, which could have been simply the museum’s desire to have wide circulation. After all, how many of us academics don’t want our work distributed and read widely? I always appreciated that about Smithsonian publications as well, though the issues were slightly different. But I also remember Steve Gould once telling me that he was able to buy his loft in New York on his royalties and speaking fees; copyright can be meaningful to those rare academic high flyers.

    Finally, and then I’ll shut up for a while, let me strongly endorse your original recommendation that we read or re-read classics such as Coming of Age, and support sources such as for making them available.

  9. Barbara, Actually, I don’t think that’s accurate. If a book had lost its copyright protection (or if it never had it), it did not regain it with the CTEA. Again, I’m not saying anything about the copyright with regard to this book. US copyright after 1923 and before 1977 is a notorious quagmire that requires individual attention to each case, as, indeed, you are giving to this one.

  10. 2k: US copyright after 1923 is indeed notoriously complicated, but my comment was based on the documented fact that a copyright was registered for Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928, and was renewed in 1955 and 2001. Apparently it has never been out of copyright. Rex’s question, and Mary’s, concerned the issue of whether the first printing of the book included the copyright notice, and the impact of that possibility on its copyright status — while this is an interesting question, my hunch is that it is not relevant to this case.

    I should caution that I am a human rights attorney, not an IP lawyer, and the IP realm has its own complexities, as 2k notes. I rely partly on work from a young friend, Betsy Rosenblatt, an IP lawyer and law school prof. whose nice summary of copyright law circulates widely, and to whom I would turn for a more expert opinion. I don’t think that’s going to be necessary in this case, however; as I wrote earlier, my bet is that the original edition of Coming of Age does indeed have the appropriate copyright notice, which was simply missing from the clearly damaged copy scanned by

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