Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Detective work leading to OA for public domain books

John Wilkin, Discovering the Undiscovered Public Domain, John Wilkin's blog, May 19, 2008.  Excerpt:

At Michigan we’re engaged in an activity that I hope will one day seem ordinary and a routine part of library work. Resources from several departments are devoted to determining the copyright status of works typically presumed to be in copyright. For now, we’re focusing on US monographic imprints (books, that is) published between 1923 and 1963, but plan to turn our attention to non-US publications in the future....

Because [our staffers'] work is driven by content that has been digitized and is online, if the work has been determined to be in the public domain, we update records that control access to the materials and permit access....

[T]he 1.5 FTE of professional staffing we devote to this work has a profound effect....Consider...the fact that these staff process more than 2,000 titles each month, and that the majority of these works are found to be in the public domain. At our current rate of work, we’ll open access to over 15,000 titles in about one year of work....For a relatively small sum, we’re benefiting our own constituency as well as readership throughout the Internet. No matter how you cut it, this feels like a good investment in library funds....

When we talk about US renewals, lots of numbers are bandied about, some numbers are based on very early analyses, and some numbers are based on reasonable sample-based analyses. The most common estimate is that only 15% of US books published between 1923 and 1963 had their copyright renewed....

This winter, Anne Karle-Zenith on our staff wrote a proposal to IMLS for the creation of a multi-institutional queuing and vetting mechanism, and our friends at Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin wrote letters offering their enthusiastic support. I hope we will one day be doing this work in a well-documented and open group space, with contributions by many institutions. After all, while this really is library work, when it comes to US publications, there’s a bounded body of candidates, and by sharing this work our community can add several thousand titles to the known public domain.

Comment.  Just as false convictions can put innocent people in prison, false assumptions of copyright can keep public-domain books behind price barriers or offline.  In both cases, I have the greatest respect for the detectives who liberate them.

Determining whether a book is under copyright or in the public domain shouldn't be this hard.  As Lawrence Lessig said in the New York Times this morning, on the slightly different topic of orphan works,

A hired expert shouldn’t be required for an orchestra to know if it can perform a work composed during World War II or for a small museum to know whether it can put a photograph from the New Deal on its Web site. In a digital age, knowing the law [or the status of an individual work] should be simple and cheap. Congress should be pushing for rules that encourage clarity, not more work for copyright experts.

But the work is hard.  Let's make sure it isn't thankless.