Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, October 01, 2007

"This product isn't theirs to sell"

Peter Brantley, Making a Brouhaha in the Blogosphere, O'Reilly Radar, September 30, 2007.  Excerpt:

Two weeks ago, Carl Malamud and I wrote to the U.S. Copyright Office seeking the release of their copyright registration database to the public without restriction. The letter, co-signed by prominent librarians and legal experts, asserts that the copyright catalog of monographs, documents, and serials should be freely available; it is a public resource, the fuel driving the copyright system itself.

Presently, the Copyright Office charges $55,125 to obtain the retrospective online database, and $31,500 for a current-year subscription that must be annually renewed, for an entry cost of $86,625. Copyright records are available for free only on what the Copyright Office calls a "record-oriented" interface, which has the functionality one would expect of an IBM 3270 terminal emulator dressed up in a style sheet.

In a voicemail that Marybeth Peters, the U.S. Register of Copyrights, left for Carl Malamud, Ms. Peters clarified that there is no copyright on any of the Copyright Office records; that they are "public records" and they should be "openly available." Ms. Peters identified the Library of Congress' Cataloging Distribution Service (CDS) as the unit responsible for providing access to the database; the CDS asserts it was mandated by the U.S. Congress to provide this service "at a charge of production and distribution cost plus 10%." Carl and I have learned they have only two customers for this particular "product" and we don't quite get the business model behind this constitutionally-mandated database.

The Library of Congress has responded to our request to fully release the database solely by describing it as "a bit of a blogospheric brouhaha over what the Library of Congress charges."

We're sympathetic with the desire of the Library to raise revenues, but this product isn't theirs to sell. This is a public resource and all 21 million records of the database are now available in bulk, without restrictions [http | ftp].


  • Kudos to the team that took this direct action.  This is a very satisfying result. 
  • Sometimes the gap between the public domain and open access can only be bridged with a big digitization project and a ready host, and both can be difficult to arrange.  But sometimes these conditions are already met and we only need courage.  I hope to see so many more of these civic-minded acts that we no longer need even courage.
  • The host for the new copy of the database,, links to Carl Malamud's as a "related" site and seems to be PublicResource's storehouse for liberated public-domain information.