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Tuesday 16 October 2012

On This Day in Typewriter History: Underwood - Big Business, Big Tax (And Crooked Books)

PART 145
One will find many Google entries for the summary and outcome of the 1920 US Supreme Court case involving the Underwood Typewriter Company, of Hartford, Connecticut, and F.S.Chamberlain, Treasurer of the State of Connecticut.
The case summary is only of interest to typewriter historians, I suppose, because of the figures it reveals in terms of the business Underwood was doing in 1915 – almost $1.34 million in profits!
The case involves an appeal by Underwood against the level of tax it was assessed as having to pay by the state of Connecticut. It opened on this day (October 13) in 1920, and was heard over two days, with a decision being handed down on November 15, 1920.
At that time all of Underwood’s manufacturing was done in Hartford. It had branch offices in other states for the sale, lease and repair of machines and the sale of supplies.
In its return to the tax commissioner of Connecticut, Underwood stated that its net profits in 1915 “derived principally from tangible personal property”.
These profits amounted to $1,336,586.13; the fair cash value of the real estate and tangible personal property in Connecticut was $2,977,827.67, and the fair cash value of the real estate and tangible personal property outside that state was $3,343,155.11. That's really big money for 1915, without a doubt.
The proportion of the real estate and tangible personal property within the state was thus 47 per cent. Using a statutory method of allocation, the tax commissioner apportioned that percentage of the net profits, $629,668.50, as having been earned from the business done within the state, and assessed a tax of $12,593.37, at the rate of 2 per cent.
Underwood paid the tax under protest but set out to recover the whole amount. Underwood argued that only a little over 3 per cent of its net receipts was collected in Connecticut.
Describing Underwood as a “unitary business”, the court upheld the tax allocation.
Among the many Google entries which will pop up regarding this case are a large proportion relating to a book merely containing the Supreme Court transcript – the background and finding. It is available in Australia at about $55 and in the US at about $45.
As these details are readily available online, one would wonder why anyone would spend this much on the book.
The same applies to other typewriter-related books which are in the public domain and published online. These are available as PDFs or one can read and/or copy images of scans of the actual published pages.
This interesting book is readily available online in PDF form or one can read and/or copy the scanned pages.
Let me explain. These books are published by companies which specialise in taking books and other documents already in the public domain (post-1923) and available online, including notably on Wikipedia, and charging absolutely ridiculous prices for them. Here is what I wrote about this scam a few years back:

They may not be the greatest writers in the world, but my goodness they must surely be the most prolific. And they would also have to have by far the broadest range of interests and knowledge. “They” are John McBrewster, Frederic P. Miller and Agnes F. Vandome. Never heard of them? Well try doing a quick author search on Amazon books. You will get no fewer than 67,926 results. Now that’s some serious writing!
Here is just a sample of some of the McBrewster, Miller and Vandome titles that appear toward the top of page one on Amazon’s website: Batman: Year One; Liu Xiaobo; Alexander McQueen; Alan Rickman; E.S. Posthumus; Islam and Modernity.
And then there’s Australian Secret Intelligence Service: Government of Australia, Intelligence Agency, Secret Intelligence Service, Central Intelligence Agency, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
But wait, there’s more: Concept Search: Concept, Information Retrieval, Concept Mining, Computational Linguistics, Information Extraction, Latent Semantic Indexing, Latent Semantic Network, Semantic Search, Semantic Web.
In case you lost count, that’s eight publications just for starters – or 0.011 per cent of the total available. And this small selection covers subjects as varied as a comic book hero, a Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner, a fashion designer, a British actor, an indy music group, ASIS and Islam. Pretty impressive stuff, you must agree. And so are the prices: the lowest priced used copy of Batman: Year One is listed by Amazon at an amazing $80.92.
But how, you may well ask, can three writers collaborate so successfully to bring out so many books on so many topics in such short time? Well, the simple answer is that they don’t. Indeed, John McBrewster, Frederic P. Miller and Agnes F. Vandome almost certainly don’t exist. Any more than that other incredible if unlikely writing trio, Lambert M. Surhone, Miriam T. Timpledon, Susan F. Maseken.
Regardless of whether they are real people, Jens Kruse Andersen has been on their case. Andersen, a Dane, is an administrator at the English Wikipedia and answers questions at the Wikipedia Help Desk. He also edits articles about prime numbers. He operates under the name “PrimeHunter”.
Andersen has traced McBrewster, Miller and Vandome back to Alphascript Publishing, an imprint of VDM Publishing Group, a German company with offices in Mauritius and Moldova. Another group “author” is named as Mainyu Eldon A.
Says Andersen, “It seems the only content of the many books is free Wikipedia articles, with no sign that these three people have contributed to them. The books often have very long titles that are full of keywords. Presumably, this is to make them more likely to be found when searching on sites such as
Under no circumstances waste money on this useless book. It contains in indiscriminate order Wikipedia entries, put together simply using the keyword "typewriter". 
Andersen points out the books are often poorly printed, with features such as missing characters from foreign languages and numerous images of arrows where the Wikipedia webpage contained links to other sites.
Advertising does not state the free source of the content. It is only revealed inside the books, which apparently satisfies the US license requirements for republishing Wikipedia articles.
In an interview published on the VDM website, Wolfgang Philipp Müller, chief executive officer of the VDM Group, defended the legality of Alphascript Publishing's practises. Müller claimed Google had “for years scanned works that were protected by copyright law … In sharp contrast to Google, Alphascript and FastBook are publishing works which are intended and allowed to be published. These so-called copyleft works are put in the internet at everyone's disposal. The licenses for the free use expressly give the permission for commercial use. And this is exactly what we are doing.”
Which is all very well, but doesn’t explain away the McBrewster, Miller, Vandome deception. It’s one thing to merge every Wikipedia article on a particular subject under one cover, but surely another to give that process an “authorship”.
Andersen points out that a McBrewster, Miller and Vandome book about the history of the European nation Georgia has a cover image of Atlanta, Georgia. A book about an American football team has a soccer player on its cover. One of 64,881 similar books available from Betascript Publishing and attributed to Surhone, Timpledon and Maseken is about the reunion tour of the pop band The Police and has a picture of a policeman on its cover.
Charles Vonley Oden’s 1917 Evolution of the Typewriter has as its cover image a coastal bay scene, with a pine forest in the background and a rocky outcrop in the foreground. Umm? Typewriters? In a pine forest? On a rocky outcrop maybe? I don’t think so!
McBrewster, Miller and Vandome books are being sold on eBay Australia by a company called Booktopia. This company also sells on eBay books which are softcover facsimile copies of old library books, in a series called Nabu Public Domain Reprints. Nabu explains these books were published before 1923 and are therefore now in the public domain in the US “and possibly other countries”. Nabu (and Booktopia) at least have the good grace to explain: “This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks … that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process. We believe this work is culturally important, and despite the imperfections, have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide.”
However, when I raised with Booktopia the subject of books by McBrewster, Miller and Vandome, it replied [and I quote verbatim]: “As all our listing on our online store are sent to us via datafeeds from the supplier. It is a difficult, and timely process to remove these types of titles. We are slowing removing these types of books from the site, as we find that they are slightly misleading in the description and find that customers are disappointed with the content.”
Frankly, I don’t understand the delay in removing these titles. Indeed, Booktopia are adding more every day.  If I was Booktopia, I’d be hurrying along the removal process, now that the McBrewster, Miller and Vandome dodge is up.


Scott K said...

Great advice on the books. Thanks Robert.

The Underwood tax story is quite interesting... And really revealing about how government and business related to each other once. Could you see the American government hitting up, say, Apple in the same way these days?

shordzi said...

Interesting entry, and great pictures. Thanks!