Everybody's Libraries

July 14, 2009

For those wanting more drama in their lives

Filed under: copyright — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 9:15 pm

Thanks to the scanning services of Penn’s Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI), and a loan of over a dozen volumes from Stanford University Libraries, we have now posted online records of copyright renewals for drama (and works intended for oral delivery) up to 1968.  They can be found in page image form at our Catalog of Copyright Entries information page.

We’ve had copyright renewals for normal books, and periodicals, online for some years now.   But we’ve been missing renewal records for one important type of literary text: the kind primarily meant for performing or proclaiming, rather than reading.  And it turns out that copyright renewal records for works that aren’t books are harder to find than you’d expect: I could find no copies at all in the Philadelphia area for the years 1955-1968. So I’m grateful to Stanford for the loan of their volumes.  There are still a few more years of drama renewals left to digitize, but I’m hoping to find the later volumes in local libraries.

So far, we’ve only posted page images.  But I’m hoping that they’ll help people to make transcriptions and structured data records, as has been done with earlier page images we’ve posted.  I’ve tried to post easily readable but not-too-big copies of the pages online, to support manual searching and OCR.  Folks who need to see the masters, which have higher resolution but are substantially larger, can contact me.

Because Google is also starting to post original copyright registrations, it’s also possible to correlate renewals with original registrations, and look for interesting statistical phenomena and trends.  Already, for instance, one can see both that most copyrights were not renewed, and that the renewal rate can vary a lot by genre. For instance, in 1931, there were 552 “Class C” copyright registrations, covering lectures, sermons, addresses, and other works prepared for oral delivery.  (See page 1659 of this volume.)   There were also 5,993 drama registrations (“Class D”; see page 406 of this volume).  In 1959, around the time these copyrights were up for renewal, there were 780 Class D renewals, a renewal rate of about 13%.  There was only 1 Class C renewal in 1959, a renewal rate of well under 1%.  (A few previous years have slightly higher Class C renewal rates, but not by much.)

After I get through with drama, there’s one more class of renewal I’d like to see online as soon as possible: image renewals.  Only a few years worth of image renewals (from the early 1950s) are online, but what’s there suggests that the renewal rate for most published images was also quite low.  Since a large number of books and periodicals include images of one kind or another, knowing which images are still under copyright will be very important for folks who want to look at complete facsimiles of older works.

The proposed Google Books settlement, for instance, proposes blanking out anything in a book that might be an image (unless rights for that image have been cleared).  This could make many books substantially less useful than they would be if the images were cleared (especially since Google’s processing algorithms have to guess where images are, and may blank out not only images, but also text that can’t be easily auto-recognized.)

In the meantime, the drama renewals just posted will also help me look into some requests I’ve received for mid-20th-century plays and speeches whose status I’ve been unable to determine previously.  I hope it will prove useful for others as well.  Thanks again to SCETI and Stanford for these.

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