Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cornell allows unrestricted use of its public-domain ebooks

Cornell University Library Removes All Restrictions on Use of Public Domain Reproductions, a press release from Cornell (today).  Excerpt:

In a dramatic change of practice, Cornell University Library has announced it will no longer require its users to seek permission to publish public domain items duplicated from its collections. Instead, users may now use reproductions of public domain works made for them by the Library or available via Web sites, without seeking any further permission.

The Library, as the producer of digital reproductions made from its collections, has in the past licensed the use of those reproductions. Individuals and corporations that failed to secure permission to repurpose these reproductions violated their agreement with the Library. "The threat of legal action, however," noted Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, "does little to stop bad actors while at the same time limits the good uses that can be made of digital surrogates. We decided it was more important to encourage the use of the public domain materials in our holdings than to impose roadblocks."

The immediate impetus for the new policy is Cornellís donation of more than 70,000 digitized public domain books to the Internet Archive (details [here]).

"Imposing legally binding restrictions on these digital files would have been very difficult and in a way contrary to our broad support of open access principles," said Oya Y. Rieger, Associate University Librarian for Information Technologies....

Institutional restrictions on the use of public domain work, sometimes labeled "copyfraud," have been the subject of much scholarly criticism. The Cornell initiative goes further than many other recent attempts to open access to public domain material by removing restrictions on both commercial and non-commercial use. Users of the public domain works are still expected to determine on their own that works are in the public domain where they live. They also must respect non-copyright rights, such as the rights of privacy, publicity, and trademark. The Library will continue to charge service fees associated with the reproduction of analog material or the provision of versions of files different than what is freely available on the Web. All library Web sites will be updated to reflect this new policy during 2009.

Comment.  This is an exemplary policy.  The original books are in the public domain and the digitizers do not acquire new copyrights in the digital editions (at least under US law).  Hence, these digital editions are also in the public domain.  Privately-funded digitization projects, like Cornell's, may still want to be reimbursed for the costs of digitization.  But Cornell is right that restricting reuse of the public-domain texts will limit valuable uses, violate the university's background commitment to OA, and (as usually implemented) constitute copyfraud.  Nor would it do much to stop determined reusers --who should not be called bad actors when they are exercising their rights to use and reuse works in the public domain. 

Update (5/14/09). Also see Josh Hadro's article in Library Journal.

Update (5/31/09). Also see Dawn Lim's article in the Cornell Daily Sun.