Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Selling what's free

David Gallagher, On eBay, Some Profit by Selling What’s Free, New York Times, December 28, 2007.  Excerpt:

While scouring eBay for interesting Christmas presents a while back, I found and bought a DVD of a film made in 1954 about my home town of Doylestown, Pa. After it arrived I went searching for more information about it — and found the entire film, available as a free download from the nonprofit Internet Archive.

It turned out that the eBay seller had simply downloaded the movie file, burned it onto a DVD and stuck it in the mail. And he was doing the same with a wide range of other public-domain material: military truck manuals from World War II, PowerPoint presentations on health matters from government doctors, vaudeville shorts from the late 1800’s.

The seller’s name is Jeffrey....In an interview, Jeffrey said that he spends 20 to 30 hours a week working on his eBay business....He wouldn’t say how much money he makes, but indicated that it was worth the time he was putting into it.

Jeffrey’s auction listings do say the material is in the public domain, and he acknowledges that it is all out there on the Web for those who know where to find it. But he said some of his customers were people who might not know how to turn a downloaded file into something they could watch on a TV or play on a CD player. Some have dial-up Internet connections that would choke on a 600-megabyte compilation of technical manuals. Others don’t have the time or expertise to search for specific information....

Brewster Kahle, the digital librarian of the Internet Archive and a co-founder of the organization, said his group had no problem with people selling material from its online collection in this way....

Also see the reader comments at the end of the story, especially this one from Rick Prelinger, founder of the Prelinger Archives:

The Doylestown film is from our archives, which we support by selling stock footage. Though I’d prefer that people put out higher-quality DVDs than they generally do, and fervently wish they’d be open about where their source material came from (most of the cheap DVD vendors get hazy when describing sources), the public domain is the public domain. If you have a legally acquired copy of a public domain work, you can do with it what you please; this freedom makes possible quotation, anthologies, mashups and cultural innovation.

By the way, paying for public domain works isn’t so unusual — don’t we still pay for editions of Dickens, Mark Twain and Flaubert?