Everybody's Libraries

January 1, 2015

Public Domain Day 2015: Ending our own enclosures

Filed under: copyright,libraries,online books,open access,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 10:50 am

It’s the start of the new year, which, as many of my readers know, marks another Public Domain Day, when a year’s worth of creative work becomes free for anyone to use in many countries.

In countries where copyrights have been extended to life plus 70 years, works by people like Piet Mondrian, Edith Durham, Glenn Miller, and Ethel Lina White enter the public domain.  In countries that have resisted ongoing efforts to extend copyrights past life + 50 years, 2015 sees works by people like Flannery O’Connor, E. J. Pratt, Ian Fleming, Rachel Carson, and T. H. White enter the public domain. And in the US, once again no published works enter the public domain due to an ongoing freeze in copyright expirations (though some well-known works might have if we still had the copyright laws in effect when they were created.)

But we’re actually getting something new worth noting this year.  Today we’re seeing scholarship-quality transcriptions of tens of thousands of early English books — the EEBO Text Creation Partnership Phase I texts – become available free of charge to the general public for the first time.  (As I write this, the books aren’t accessible yet, but I expect they will be once the folks in the project come back to work from the holiday.)  (UpdateIt looks like files and links are now on Github; hopefully more user-friendly access points are in the works as well.)

This isn’t a new addition to the public domain; the books being transcribed have been in the public domain for some time.  But it’s the first time many of them are generally available in a form that’s easily searchable and isn’t riddled with OCR errors.  For the rarer works, it’s the first time they’re available freely across the world in any form.  It’s important to recognize this milestone as well, because taking advantage of the public domain requires not just copyrights expiring or being waived, but also people dedicated to making the public domain available to the public.

And that is where we who work in institutions dedicated to learning, knowledge, and memory have unique opportunities and responsibilities.   Libraries, galleries, archives, and museums have collected and preserved much of the cultural heritage that is now in the public domain, and that is often not findable– and generally not shareable– anywhere else.  That heritage becomes much more useful and valuable when we share it freely with the whole world online than when we only give access to people who can get to our physical collections, or who can pay the fees and tolerate the usage restrictions of restricted digitized collections.

So whether or not we’re getting new works in the public domain this year, we have a lot of work to do this year, and the years to follow, in making that work available to the world.  Wherever and whenever possible, those of us whose mission focuses more on knowledge than commerce should commit to having that work be as openly accessible as possible, as soon as possible.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work with the commercial sector, or respect their interests as well.  After all, we wouldn’t have seen nearly so many books become readable online in the early years of this century if it weren’t for companies like Google, Microsoft, and ProQuest digitizing them at much larger scale than libraries had previously done on their own.  As commercial firms, they’re naturally looking to make some money by doing so.  But they need us as much as we need them to digitize the materials we hold, so we have the power and duty to ensure that when we work with them, our agreements fulfill our missions to spread knowledge widely as well as their missions to earn a profit.

We’ve done better at this in some cases than in others.   I’m happy that many of the libraries who partnered with Google in their book scanning program retained the rights to preserve those scans themselves and make them available to the world in HathiTrust.   (Though it’d be nice if the Google-imposed restrictions on full-book downloads from there eventually expired.)  I’m happy that libraries who made deals with ProQuest in the 1990s to digitize old English books that no one else was then digitizing had the foresight to secure the right to make transcriptions of those books freely available to the world today.  I’m less happy that there’s no definite release date yet for some of the other books in the collection (the ones in Phase II, where the 5-year timer for public release doesn’t count down until that phase’s as-yet-unclear completion date), and that there appears to be no plan to make the page images freely available.

Working together, we in knowledge institutions can get around the more onerous commercial restrictions put on the public domain.  I have no issue with firms that make a reasonable profit by adding value– if, for instance, Melville House can quickly sell lots of printed and digitally transcribed copies of the US Senate Torture report for under $20, more power to them.  People who want to pay for the convenience of those editions can do so, and free public domain copies from the Senate remains available for those who want to read and repurpose them.

But when I hear about firms like Taylor and Francis charging as much as $48 to nonsubscribers to download a 19th century public domain article from their website for the Philosophical Magazine, I’m going to be much more inclined to take the time to promote free alternatives scanned by others.  And we can make similar bypasses of not-for-profit gatekeepers when necessary.  I sympathize with Canadian institutions having to deal with drastic funding cuts, which seem to have prompted Early Canadiana Online to put many of their previously freely available digitized books behind paywalls– but I still switched my links as soon as I could to free copies of most of the same books posted at the Internet Archive.  (I expect that increasing numbers of free page scans of the titles represented in Early English Books Online will show up there and elsewhere over time as well, from independent scanning projects if not from ProQuest.)

Assuming we can hold off further extensions to copyright (which, as I noted last year, is a battle we need to show up for now), four years from now we’ll finally have more publication copyrights expiring into the public domain in the US.  But there’s a lot of work we in learning and memory institutions can do now in making our public domain works available to the world.  For that matter, there’s a lot we can do in making the many copyrighted works we create available to the world in free and open forms.  We saw a lot of progress in that respect in 2014: Scholars and funders are increasingly shifting from closed-access to open-access publication strategies.  A coalition of libraries has successfully crowdfunded open-access academic monographs for less cost to them than for similar closed-access print books.  And a growing number of academic authors and nonprofit publishers are making open access versions of their works, particularly older works, freely available to world while still sustaining themselves.  Today, for instance, I’ll be starting to list on The Online Books Page free copies of books that Ohio State University Press published in 2009, now that a 5-year-limited paywall has expired on those titles.  And, as usual, I’m also dedicating a year’s worth of 15-year-old copyrights I control (in this case, for work I made public in 2000) to the public domain today, since the 14-year initial copyright term that the founders of the United States first established is plenty long for most of what I do.

As we celebrate Public Domain Day today, let’s look to the works that we ourselves oversee, and resolve to bring down enclosures and provide access to as much of that work as we can.

June 16, 2014

January 1, 2014

Public Domain Day 2014: The fight for the public domain is on now

Filed under: copyright,data,open access,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 2:42 pm

New Years’ Day is upon us again, and with it, the return of Public Domain Day, which I’m happy to see has become a regular celebration in many places over the last few years.  (I’ve observed it here since 2008.)  In Europe, the Open Knowledge Foundation gives us a “class picture” of authors who died in 1943, and whose works are now entering the public domain there and in other “life+70 years” countries.  Meanwhile, countries that still hold to the Berne Convention’s “life+50 years” copyright term, including Canada, Japan, and New Zealand, and many others, get the works of authors who died in 1963.  (The Open Knowledge Foundation also has highlights for those countries, where Narnia/Brave-New-World/purloined-plums crossover fanfic is now completely legal.)  And Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain laments that, for the 16th straight year, the US gets no more published works entering the public domain, and highlights the works that would have gone into the public domain here were it not for later copyright extensions.

It all starts to look a bit familiar after a few years, and while we may lament the delays in works entering the public domain, it may seem like there’s not much to do about it right now.  After all, most of the world is getting another year’s worth of public domain again on schedule, and many commentators on the US’s frozen public domain don’t see much changing until we approach 2019, when remaining copyrights on works published in 1923 are scheduled to finally expire.  By then, writers like Timothy Lee speculate, public domain supporters will be ready to fight the passage of another copyright term extension bill on Congress like the one that froze the public domain here back in 1998.

We can’t afford that sense of complacency.  In fact, the fight to further extend copyright is raging now, and the most significant campaigns aren’t happening in Congress or other now-closely-watched legislative chambers.  Instead, they’re happening in the more secretive world of international trade negotiations, where major intellectual property hoarders have better access than the general public, and where treaties can be used to later force extensions of the length and impact of copyright laws at the national level, in the name of “harmonization”.   Here’s what we currently have to deal with:

Remaining Berne holdouts are being pushed to add 20 more years of copyright.  Remember how I said that Canada, Japan, and New Zealand were all enjoying another year of “life+50 years” copyright expirations?  Quite possibly not for long.  All of those countries are also involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, which include a strong push for more extensive copyright control.  The exact terms are being kept secret, but a leaked draft of the intellectual property chapter from August 2013 shows agreement by many of the countries’ trade negotiators to mandate “life+70 years” terms across the partnership.  That would mean a loss of 20 years of public domain for many TPP countries, and ultimately increased pressure on other countries to match the longer terms of major trade partners.  Public pressure from citizens of those countries can prevent this from happening– indeed, a leak from December hints that some countries that had favored extensions back in August are reconsidering.  So now is an excellent time to do as Gutenberg Canada suggests and let legislators and trade representatives know that you value the public domain and oppose further extensions of copyright.

Life+70 years countries still get further copyright extensions.   The push to extend copyrights further doesn’t end when a country abandons the “life+50 years” standard.  Indeed, just this past year the European Union saw another 20 years added on to the terms of sound recordings (which previously had a 50-year term of their own in addition to the underlying life+70 years copyrights on the material being recorded.)  This extension is actually less than the 95 years that US lobbyists had pushed for, and are still pushing for in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to match terms in the US.

(Why does the US have a 95-year term in the first place that it wants Europe to harmonize with?  Because of the 20-year copyright extension that was enacted in 1998 in the name of harmonizing with Europe.  As with climbers going from handhold to handhold and foothold to foothold higher in a cliff, you can always find a way to “harmonize” copyright ever upward if you’re determined to do so.)

The next major plateau for international copyright terms, life+100 years, is now in sight.  The leaked TPP draft from August also includes a proposal from Mexico to add yet another 30 years onto copyright terms, to life+100 years, which that country adopted not many years ago.  It doesn’t have much chance of passage in the TPP negotiations, where to my knowledge only Mexico has favored the measure.   But it makes “life+70″ seem reasonable in comparison, and sets a precedent for future, smaller-scale trade deals that could eventually establish longer terms.  It’s worth remembering, for instance, that Europe’s “life+70″ terms started out in only a couple of countries, spread to the rest of Europe in European Union trade deals, and then to the US and much of the rest of the world.  Likewise, Mexico’s “life+100″ proposal might be more influential in smaller-scale Latin American trade deals, and once established there, spread to the US and other countries.  With 5 years to go before US copyrights are scheduled to expire again in significant numbers, there’s time for copyright maximalists to get momentum going for more international “harmonization”.

What’s in the public domain now isn’t guaranteed to stay there.  That’s been the case for a while in Europe, where the public domain is only now getting back to where it was 20 years ago.  (The European Union’s 1990s extension directive rolled back the public domain in many European countries, so in places like the United Kingdom, where the new terms went into effect in 1996, the public domain is only now getting to where it was in 1994.)  But now in the US as well, where “what enters the public domain stays in the public domain” has been a long-standing custom, the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can in fact remove works from the public domain in certain circumstances.   The circumstances at issue in the case they ruled on?  An international trade agreement– which as we’ve seen above is now the prevailing way of getting copyrights extended in the first place.   Even an agreement that just establishes life+70 years as a universal requirement, but doesn’t include the usual grandfathered exception for older works, could put the public domain status of works going back as far the 1870s into question, as we’ve seen with HathiTrust international copyright determinations.

But we can help turn the tide.  It’s also possible to cooperate internationally to improve access to creative works, and not just lock it up further.  We saw that start to happen this past year, for instance, with the signing of the Marrakesh Treaty on copyright exceptions and limitations, intended to ensure that those with disabilities that make it hard to read books normally can access the wealth of literature and learning available to the rest of the world.  The treaty still needs to be ratified before it can go into effect, so we need to make sure ratification goes through in our various countries.  It’s a hopeful first step in international cooperation increasing access instead of raising barriers to access.

Another improvement now being discussed is to require rightsholders to register ongoing interest in a work if they want to keep it under copyright past a certain point.  That idea, which reintroduces the concept of “formalities”, has been floated some prominent figures like US Copyright Register Maria Pallante.  Such formalities would alleviate the problem of “orphan works” no longer being exploited by their owners but not available for free use.   (And a sensible, uniform formalities system could be simpler and more straightforward than the old country-by-country formalities that Berne got rid of, or the formalities people already accept for property like motor vehicles and real estate.)  Pallante’s initial proposal represents a fairly small step; for compatibility with the Berne Convention, formalities would not be required until the last 20 years of a full copyright term.  But with enough public support, it could help move copyright away from a “one size fits all” approach to one that more sensibly balances the interests of various kinds of creators and readers.

We can also make our own work more freely available.  For the last several years, I’ve been applying my own personal “formalities” program, in which I release into the public domain works I’ve created that I don’t need to further limit.  So in keeping with the original 14-year renewable terms of US copyright law, I now declare that all work that I published in 1999, and that I have sole control of rights over, is hereby dedicated to the public domain via a CC0 grant.  (They join other works from the 1900s that I’ve also dedicated to the public domain in previous years.)  For 1999, this mostly consists of material I put online, including all versions of  Catholic Resources on the Net, one of the first websites of its kind, which I edited from 1993 to 1999.  It also includes another year’s history of The Online Books Page.

Not that you have to wait 14 years to free your work.  Earlier this year, I released much of the catalog data from the Online Books Page into the public domain.  The metadata in that site’s “curated collection” continues to be released as open data under a CC0 grant as soon as it is published, so other library catalogs, aggregators, and other sites can freely reuse, analyze, and republish it as they see fit.

We can do more with work that’s under copyright, or that seems to be.  Sometimes we let worries about copyright keep us from taking full advantage of what copyright law actually allows us to do with works.  In the past couple of years, we saw court rulings supporting the rights of Google and HathiTrust to use digitized, but not publicly readable, copies of in-copyright books for indexing, search, and preservation purposes.   (Both cases are currently being appealed by the Authors Guild.)  HathiTrust has also researched hundreds of thousands of book copyrights, and as of a month ago they’d enabled access to nearly 200,000 volumes that were classified as in-copyright under simple precautionary guideliness, but determined to be actually in the public domain after closer examination.)

In the coming year, I’d like to see if we can do similar work to open up access to historical journals and other serials as well.  For instance, Duke’s survey of the lost public domain mentions that articles from 1957 major science journals like Nature, Science, and JAMA are behind paywalls, but as far as I’ve been able to tell, none of those three journals renewed copyrights for their 1957 issues.  Scientists are also increasingly making current work openly available through open access journals, open access repositories, and even discipline-wide initiatives like SCOAP3, which also debuts today.

There are also some potentially useful copyright exemptions for libraries in Section 108 of US copyright law that we could use to provide more access to brittle materials, materials nearing the end of their copyright term, and materials used by print-impaired users.

Supporters of the public domain that sit around and wait for the next copyright extension to get introduced into their legislatures are like generals expecting victory by fighting the last warThere’s a lot that public domain supporters can do, and need to do, now.  That includes countering the ongoing extension of copyright through international trade agreements, promoting initiatives to restore a proper balance of interest between rightsholders and readers, improving access to copyrighted work where allowed, making work available that’s new to the public domain (or that we haven’t yet figured out is out of copyright), and looking for opportunities to share our own work more widely with the world.

So enjoy the New Year and the Public Domain Day holiday.  And then let’s get to work.

August 23, 2013

January 1, 2013

Public Domain Day 2013: or, There and Back Again

Filed under: copyright,online books,open access,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 7:48 am

The first day of the new year is Public Domain Day, when many countries celebrate a year’s worth of copyrights expiring, and the associated works become freely available for anyone to share and adapt.  As the Public Domain Day page at Duke’s Center for the Public Domain notes, the United States once again does not have much to celebrate.  Except for unpublished works by authors who died in 1942, no copyrights expire in the US today.  Under current law, Americans still have to wait 6 more years before any more copyrights of published works will expire.  (Subsisting copyrights from 1923 are scheduled to finally enter the public domain at the start of 2019.)

The start of 2013 is more significant in Europe, where the Open Knowledge Foundation has a more upbeat Public Domain Day site featuring authors who died in 1942, and whose published works enter the public domain today in most of the European Union. But that isn’t actually breaking new ground in most of Europe, because 2013 is also the 20th anniversary of the 1993 European Union Copyright Duration Directive, which required European countries to retroactively extend their copyright terms from the Berne Convention‘s “life of the author plus 50 years” to “life of the author plus 70 years”, and put 20 years’ worth of public domain works back into copyright in those countries.

For countries that used the Berne Convention’s term and implemented the directive right away, today marks the day that the public domain finally returns to its maximum extent of 20 years ago.  Only next year will Europe start seeing truly new public domain works.  (And since many European countries took a couple of years or more to implement the directive– the UK implemented it at the start of 1996, for instance– it may still be a few years yet before their public domain is back again to what it once was.)

At least the last US copyright extension, in 1998, only froze the public domain, without rolling it back.  If the US had not passed that extension, we would be seeing works published in 1937, such as the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, now entering the public domain.  (If the US hadn’t made any post-publication extensions, we’d also have the more familiar revision of The Hobbit, in which Gollum does not voluntarily give Bilbo the Ring, in the public domain now as well, along with all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.)   Folks in Canada and other “life+50 years” countries, now celebrating the public domain status of works by authors who died in 1962, may be able to freely share and adapt Tolkien’s works in another 11 years.  Folks in Europe and the US who’d like to see a variety of visual adaptations, though, will have to content themselves with the estate-licensed Peter Jackson and Rankin/Bass adaptations for a while to come.

But there are still things Americans can do to make today meaningful.  For the last few years, I’ve been releasing copyrights I control into the public domain after 14 years (the original term of copyright set by the country’s founders, with an option to renew for another 14).  So today, I dedicate all such copyrights for works I published in 1998 to the public domain.  This includes my computer science doctoral dissertation, Mediating Among Diverse Data Formats.  If I believed a recent fearmongering statement from certain British journal editors, I should be worried about plagiarism resulting from this dedication, which doesn’t even have the legal attribution requirement of the CC-BY license they decry.  But as I’ve explained in a previous post on plagiarism, plagiarism is fundamentally an ethical rather than a legal matter, and scholars can no more get away with plagiarizing public domain material than they can with copyrighted material.   Both are and should be a career-killer in academia.

I’ll also continue to feature “new” public domain works from around the world on The Online Books Page.  Starting today, for instance, I’ll be listing works featured in The Public Domain Review, a wonderful ongoing showcase of public domain works inaugurated by the Open Knowledge Foundation on Public Domain Day 2011.  I’ll also be continuing to add listings from Project Gutenberg Canada and other sites in “life+50 years” countries, as well as other titles suggested by my readers.

Finally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Congress’s actions on copyright.  In this past year, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could take works out of the public domain, meaning that the public domain in the US is now under threat of shrinking, and not just freezing.  And the power of the copyright lobby was evident this year when a Republican Study Committee memo recommending copyright reform (including shorter terms) was yanked within 24 hours of its posting, and its author then fired.  On the other hand, 2012 also saw one of the largest online protests in history stop a copyright lobby-backed Internet censorship bill in its tracks.  If the public shows that it cares as much about the public domain as about bills like SOPA, we could have a growing public domain back again before long, instead of works going back again into copyright.

July 30, 2012

In which I finally buy an ebook

Filed under: copyright,formats,online books,reading,science fiction — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 9:43 pm

In my last post, I discussed why I wanted to buy ebooks I could truly own, and my subsequent attempts to buy such a  copy of John Scalzi’s Redshirts from a readers’-rights-friendly retailer.  I initially had a hard time finding an ebook store that fulfilled three basic requirements:

  1. The store must sell a DRM-free copy of the book, in a convenient format.  That eliminated specialized ebook stores that didn’t carry the title at all.  Also, a number of major sites only had DRM-locked versions at first.
  2. The store must make the format and DRM-free status clear. Most mass-market ebooks are still locked down with DRM, and I don’t want to get stuck with that, either for this title or for other titles I might buy.  So the store had to make it clear what I was buying, either by a notation on the book’s catalog page, or by a general policy stating that books they offered were DRM-free.
  3. The store must not require me to agree to give up my rights as a reader under copyright law.  In particular, I would not consent to any terms of sale that significantly limited my rights of fair use or first sale.  Fair use allows me to make copies of copyrighted material under certain conditions, such as quoting and critiquing a small portion in my own work, or making a complete personal copy of a  TV show I’ve received or CD I’ve  bought, for more convenient consumption.  First sale lets me decide how to dispose of a book once I’ve bought it, including giving over the copy of something I’ve already lawfully acquired to someone else.  (First sale rights also let libraries lend out books without having to ask publishers first.)  Each of these rights has limits, and there are still disputes over how far these rights can be applied to digital content.  But I didn’t want to pre-emptively sign away rights that copyright law might give me.

I didn’t think it would be that hard to find a retailer to meet these requirements.  But here’s what I found when I went shopping:

Barnes and Noble: Since we owned a Nook, I first called up the store app on that device.  The ebook was simply marked as a “Nook Book”, with no clear differentation between a DRM-free and a DRM-locked copy.  (The current catalog page for the book now mentions in the overview that it’s being sold without DRM, though  not very prominently.)  I also recalled that to get access to the store in the first place, I had to click through a terms of service agreement.   Reviewing that on the web turned up a clause saying I couldn’t “copy, transfer, sublicense, assign, rent, lease, lend, resell or in any way transfer any rights to all or any portion of the Digital Content to any third party” except under certain explicit, very limited conditions.  In other words, give up first sale rights to anything I bought in the Nook store.  Rather than do that, I moved on to another retailer.

Amazon: There was no clear mention of DRM status on the book’s catalog page initially (even now, I don’t see it there until I click on “show more”).  Anazon uses its own Kindle (mobi) format for its books, so I’d need to convert it to a different format (possibly degrading the layout in the process) or get a Kindle reading program or device. The Kindle License Agreement and Terms of Use limits how I’m allowed to read books they sell, disallows third party transfers except by explicit permission, and in case I missed the point, explicitly states “Digital Content is licensed, not sold”.  No sale here, then.

Google:  Going over to Google Books, I find this book available through Google Play.  The catalog page doesn’t tell me what format it’s in, or whether it has DRM; it instead just asks me to sign in to buy it.  Google then tells me I have to agree to their terms, which again include no third party transfers, before it will give me access to whatever formats it may let me download.  If I read the book online within Google Play itself, its  privacy policy allows it to look over my shoulder to a limited extent while I’m reading.  Google pledges to use this power only for good, but personally I’d prefer to download and keep my reading details to myself in the first place, thanks.

Sony Reader store: Information on format and DRM status is not clear for its books.  Based on Sony’s past history with DRM, there’s no way I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt with the formats they might use.

Independent bookstores: I  also looked into whether I could buy an ebook through one of the independent bookstores I’ve liked shopping in.  Unfortunately, they don’t seem to offer much.  My local indie store doesn’t appear to sell ebooks at all, and Powell’s doesn’t offer seem to offer this title at present.  Independents in the IndeBound ebook program appear to just be referral agents for Google Books.

Diesel eBooks: The slogan “More freedom, more ebooks” seemed promising when I found this site.  Diesel offers both DRM-locked and DRM-free titles, and their catalog pages make it very clear which is which.   Unfortunately, they only offered a DRM-locked version of Redshirts for weeks after it was first released.  However, I recently went back to the site and found they’d switched to the DRM-free version.  Buying that ebook consisted of registering my name and email address, giving them my credit card information, and downloading an EPub file.  No click-through agreements were involved, and when I went over to look at the general terms of use for the site, they basically amounted to “don’t abuse the site, or infringe copyright”.  In short, I gave them money, and they gave me an ebook, and said “Enjoy!”, with no further fuss. That’s the kind of book shopping I like.

So there’s at least one reasonably comprehensive and reader-friendly ebookstore out there.  I’d be happy to hear about others as well.  And I look forward to buying and owning more books, in both print and electronic formats.

July 29, 2012

In which I try to buy an ebook

Filed under: copyright,online books,reading,science fiction — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 9:52 pm

Not long ago I went to the bookstore and bought some books.

This is how: I found some books I liked on the shelves, brought them to the front counter, and handed the clerk some money.  The clerk put my books and a receipt into a bag, and ended the transaction by handing me the bag and saying “Enjoy!”

So that’s what I did.  As I left the store, I thought about which book I’d start on the train home, and about all the other things I could do with my new books.  I could read them to myself, read out load to my family, lend them out to friends, cite or briefly quote them in my own work, trade them in at the used bookshop, donate them to the local library, bequeath them to my heirs, cut things out from them and post them on my wall, make origami art out of the pages, or lots of other things that neither I nor the bookseller had yet imagined.  As long as I didn’t violate copyright or other laws, neither the bookstore, the publisher, nor anyone else had any further say in how I  enjoyed the books.  They were mine.

I also own a number of books on my computers, but not ones I’ve bought, at least not as ebooks.  (They’re all in the public domain, or came bundled with a print edition I bought, or are free authorized digital editions. I don’t do bootlegs.)  But I wanted to buy electronic books as well– books I liked that weren’t being offered for free or in bundles; books where I could support the authors and publishers through my purchase.

Unfortunately, there weren’t many ebooks of interest that I could buy– at least not if “buying” means “owning”.  Oh, I could call up a store app on my Nook, or go to Amazon online, where they offered me book files in return for some money and my consent to a take-it-or-leave-it agreement.   A file I paid for wouldn’t be a book I owned, it would be a file that I licensed under a non-negotiable contract, and I could only do with the file what the vendor, the publisher, and other parties to the agreement decreed I could do.  The file itself would be encrypted with “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), that would only allow display by approved programs that carefully controlled whether and how I could read the book. And if those programs stopped working, or decided to revoke my right to read the book, or if I wanted to use the books on some other system, or in some other way they didn’t anticipate and approve of, tough luck for me.  (Technically, I could break the encryption, but I would be breaking the law if I did.)   And I shouldn’t even think about trying to pass along the book to someone else– unless I was lucky enough to find a title eligible for some very limited lending experiments certain publishers and vendors were trying out.  I have books in my home that my grandparents read 100 years ago, but I had little hope my grandchildren would be able to read ebooks like these, at least not legally.

A few places offered DRM-free books for sale, but they tended either to offer titles I preferred to read in print (like the computer books published by O’Reilly), or they didn’t offer many titles of interest to me.  I wasn’t going to get into the habit of buying ebooks unless there was a critical mass of titles worth aggregating into a personal library.

So I was thrilled when Tor, a major science fiction publisher and an imprint of one of the Big Six publishing companies, announced that all of their books would soon be sold DRM-free.  They weren’t the first SF imprint to take this route– Baen, for instance, has been offering DRM-free titles for years– but Tor had enough authors I liked that I could see myself buying ebooks from them fairly regularly.  Tor’s first DRM-free release would be John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a book I’d already been hoping to buy, and which I now decided to buy as an ebook.  That would let me try out the new format, and also thank Tor and Scalzi for taking the initiative to let readers just own their books.  (And if Tor’s initiative does well, other imprints might follow.)

I originally planned to buy the ebook on its release date.  But even when an author and a publisher are ready to go, it can take a while to get the retailers on board.  On the day Redshirts came out, many ebook stores delivered DRM-locked files instead of the DRM-free edition readers expected.  (Thankfully, Tor offered free exchanges almost right away.)  More worrisome to me, though, was that many of the major ebook retailer sites wouldn’t complete a transaction unless I first indicated consent to a “take it or leave it” agreement that appeared to sign away important rights readers normally have to books they buy.  Unlike the print books I bought in the bookstore, my enjoyment of the ebooks I got from these sellers would be restricted by their contractual demands, above and beyond the standard constraints of copyright law.  DRM or no DRM, the ebooks would not  truly be my own if I agreed to those demands.

Eventually, though, I found a retailer that offered what I wanted without any unacceptable strings attached, and I’m now a happy Redshirts ebook owner and reader.  I’ll describe my experience buying the book from that retailer, and not buying the book from some better-known retailers, in my next post.

July 22, 2012

Building on a full complement of copyright records

Filed under: citizen librarians,copyright,open access,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 12:22 pm

Thanks to recent efforts of the US Copyright Office, we now have a complete digitization of summary copyright registration and renewal records back to the late 19th century.  As Mike Burke and others at the Copyright Office have been reporting on their blog, Copyright Matters: Digitization and Public Access, the Copyright Office has now digitized nearly every volume of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, and its predecessor publication, the Catalogue of Title Entries of Books and Other Articles, to the start of that serial in 1891.  Combined with the current online Copyright Catalog database, and some independent scans that fill in gaps in the Copyright Office set, records for every copyright registration and renewal still in force in the US can now be found online, free of charge.

This is a great benefit for people wanting to make better use of copyrighted works and the public domain.  With the information now online, we can quickly verify copyright and public domain status for lots of works, and also get useful leads on current owners of copyrights, in ways that were not possible when the only copies of the Catalog were in closed reserve at certain federal depository libraries.  Various people in the Copyright Office  have been hoping for a while to get approval and funding for this digitization, and I’m very thankful for their persistence in seeing the work through.

Not all the work is done, though.  Although the Catalog is now online, its records are not as easy to search, navigate through, and interpret as they could be.  There’s no one-stop search box, for instance, that will reliably bring you to any copyright record with your query terms, regardless of date or type of record.  And the Copyright Office also has more information about its copyright registrations– some of it on catalog cards, and more of it on original registration certificates like the one I found when researching the status of my mother’s book– that could be useful to people researching copyright status and looking for rightsholders.

For now, the Copyright Office is scanning the cards used to look up volumes of registration certificates, and that are also the basis of the Catalog of Copyright Entries printed volumes.  From my (limited) experience with these cards, they don’t seem to add much information to what’s in the printed Catalog, but it’s easier to automatically create a searchable, structured database of copyright records from the cards, with their fairly regular typefaces and formats, than it would be to create one from the Catalog scans.  According to their latest blog post, the Copyright Office is now creating digital images of the relevant cards, and hope to be done by the end of Fiscal Year 2014, or a little over 26 months from now.  They’re also hoping to work with various partners– including “crowdsourcing” partnerships– to reliably convert the information on the cards into machine-readable form.

There are also lots of ways to make the existing online records more useful.   On my own copyright records site, for instance, I’ve now made a comprehensive index to all the Catalog volumes, and created a table to make it easier to look up records in digitized Catalog volumes, based on the year and type of copyright registration.  I’m still working on further refinements, and would be very happy to hear suggestions.  (I’ve also been unable to find one 12-month stretch of records for copyrights from 1895 and 1896.  Fortunately, all the copyrights from those years have long since expired, but I’d still be grateful to anyone who can help me fill this last gap.)

At the same time, I’ve been using the comprehensive record set to help me research and publicize copyright status for listings on The Online Books Page.  For instance, if I’m listing public domain issues of a journal, magazine, or other serial, I’ll also look to see whether additional issues might also be in the public domain if their copyrights were not renewed.  Then I’ll place a note about this on my cover page for the serial, if applicable.

As for the Copyright Office, I’m hoping that they can soon start digitizing their volumes of registration certificates, which contain a lot of useful additional information about copyrights and copyright holders, and which no one else has.  Digitizing all of them wouldn’t be cheap– there are a lot of pages potentially to digitize, usually two for each registration.  But perhaps they could start digitizing incrementally, either on a prioritized systematic basis (e.g., starting with the most recent volumes), or on a demand-based basis (e.g., digitizing when someone wants to obtain a copy of one of a volume’s certificates).

These are only a few of the things that could be done with the records now online, by people anywhere with the suitable motivation.  I’d love to hear what others are doing or thinking of doing.

January 17, 2012

Why The Online Books Page is black for January 18

Filed under: censorship,copyright,online books — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 10:45 pm

As I mentioned in my last post, the US Congress is currently considering two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA),that would make it easy for copyright infringement complaints (whether ultimately justified or not) to wipe entire sites off the Net by various means, with little recourse or due process for site owners.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, these bills, if enacted, threaten censorship of a wide variety of sites that host controversial content or unfiltered public discourse, not just flagrant bootleg sites.   Sites hosting online books, in particular, could be cut off in various ways if they host a book that someone says infringes copyright in some way. (Even the threat of wholesale cutoff could cause them to take the book down, without any sort of judicial hearing.)  Even linking to a site that has content that’s the subject of a complaint could put a site at risk.

Many sites are “going dark” in various ways on the 18th, to raise awareness of these bills and show what it could be like if they became targets of SOPA or PIPA-enabled censorship.  This includes a number of the sites linked to from The Online Books Page.  For example, the Internet Archive, which hosts 2 million volumes, is out of service for 12 hours on the 18th.

The Online Books Page will not go offline, but we will turn many of our pages black for the 18th, as a warning both that some of the links on the site may be out of service, and that the site itself, which links to more than 1.4 million books on thousands of sites around the world, could be at risk if the bills currently under consideration in Congress pass.

My objection to the bills is not an objection to opposing copyright violations.  As the US Constitution recognizes, appropriately bounded copyrights serve a useful purpose in “promoting the progress of science and arts“, and a fair bit of the time I spend on The Online Books Page is devoted towards making sure the online books I curate do in fact comply with applicable copyright law.   Without clear and reasonable boundaries, though, copyright and its enforcement can inhibit rather than promote the progress of knowledge and the arts, by becoming tools of censorship and chilled speech.  I believe the current bills in Congress unfortunately do that.  If you are concerned about them as well, I encourage you to contact members of Congress to make your concerns known.

January 1, 2012

Public Domain Day 2012: Five things we can do in the US

Filed under: copyright,libraries,online books,open access — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 10:24 am

It’s New Year’s Day again, and in much of the world, this means another year’s worth of works enter the public domain.  That’s a cause for celebration, as Europe and many other countries that have “life+70 years” copyright terms welcome works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jelly Roll Morton, and Elizabeth von Arnim into the public domain.  The Communia Project’s Public Domain Day website focuses on works by these and many other authors that are entering (in many cases, re-entering) the public domain in “life+70 years” countries.  Meanwhie, folks in Canada, New Zealand, and other countries that have held the line at the “life+50 years” terms of the Berne Convention can now freely enjoy the works of people like James Thurber, Ernest Hemingway, and H.D.

There’s not so much excitement about Public Domain Day in the US, where no published works are scheduled to enter the public domain for another 7 years, due to a 20-year copyright extension enacted in 1998.  But Americans don’t have to simply sigh and contemplate what might have been if our copyright terms hadn’t been extended.  The new year still provides a number of important opportunities for Americans to improve access to the public domain.

1. Find and free newly public domain unpublished works

Some works are going into the public domain in the US today: works never published prior to 2003 (or copyrighted under US law prior to 1978) by authors who died in 1941– the same authors whose published works go into the public domain in Europe today.

But who would care about such obscure works? one might ask.  Well, if you’re at all interested in understanding the dense, allusion-laden fiction of Joyce, or the psychology of Woolf, or the jurisprudential thinking of Louis Brandeis, or the inner lives of any of the rest of the “class of 1941″, having the right to freely access, publish, and build on their unpublished works can be crucial.

Up until now, for instance, scholars studying James Joyce have often been frustrated by sharp restrictions and legal threats made by the administrator of Joyce’s literary estate.  In 2008, Rebecca Ganz characterized the administrator thus: “[His] primary purpose is to quell any scholarship that he finds distasteful or an invasion of his family’s privacy. He has a history of harassing authors and artists until they buckle under the strain of trying to obtain legal rights to quote from the late author’s writings.”  Scholars wishing to invoke Joyce’s unpublished works in their work have either had to undertake multi-year legal battles, or cut back on the lines of inquiry they might otherwise pursue.

American libraries and archives have many illuminating papers by authors who died in 1941– even non-US authors like Joyce and Woolf.  US digitizers, librarians, and archivists can open up and publicize these works.   In some cases, we’re uniquely positioned to do so, since their unpublished works may still be under copyright in some other countries.

2. Increase worldwide availability of public domain works

Many of the millions of digitized books on the Internet are hosted in the US, in large-scale repositories like Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive.  Many of these services give limited access to non-US readers or materials.  Google and HathiTrust, for instance, limit non-US access by default to books published as long as 140 years ago, to avoid falling afoul of “life+70 years” copyright terms abroad.  JSTOR likewise limits access to non-US journal volumes published in 1870 or later.

With another year’s worth of copyrights expiring in “life+70 years” countries, it should be safe for these US-based services to also open up worldwide access to another year’s worth of works, further freeing up the public domain.  HathiTrust is also willing to manually review copyrights on specific books to open up access.  If you come across any books in HathiTrust solely by authors who died in 1941 (or before) that are currently labeled only as “public domain in the United States”, you can request that they review it for opening up access worldwide.  Just use the “Feedback” button at the bottom of the book’s HathiTrust page, or the suggestion form on my Online Books Page; and make sure you ask specifically for non-US access.

3. Restore access to obscure copyrighted works from 1936 (and earlier)

After libraries and archives expressed concerns about the fate of obscure works under longer copyright terms, Congress included a special exemption in their 1998 copyright tem extension.  The exemption, codified as section 108(h) of the copyright law, states that “during the last 20 years of any term of copyright of a published work, a library or archives, including a nonprofit educational institution that functions as such, may reproduce, distribute, display, or perform in facsimile or digital form a copy or phonorecord of such work, or portions thereof, for purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research”, under certain conditions.  In particular, if the institution finds, after a reasonable investigation, that such a work is not “subject to normal commercial exploitation” (such as by being in print) and cannot “be obtained at a reasonable price”, and no rightsholder has filed a claim otherwise, the work qualifies for this special exemption.  As of this year’s Public Domain Day, qualifying publications from 1936 join what is now 14 years of works in this category.

So far, I have found very little digitized content online where this exemption is explicitly invoked.  (There are advantages to explicitly doing so, both because it helps clarify the right to use the material, and helps prevent inadvertent unauthorized propagation of the works, such as the commercial reprints of digitized books that are now common on many large bookselling sites.)  Yet many of the works in HathiTrust’s (currently suspended) orphan works initiative, and in the Internet Archive’s lending library, and more besides, could well qualify for this treatment– and unlike orphan works, where legislation has yet to be passed, the exemption for these materials is already explicitly authorized by statute.

Providing online access for these works is not without controversy.  A 2002 article by lawyer Mary Minow details some of the potential possibilities and risks.   While she concludes that libraries can put such works on the Web, the recent Author’s Guild complaint in its lawsuit against HathiTrust includes some push-back against this idea. But as the public domain in the US recedes further into history, and digital library projects increasingly look for ways to make our cultural heritage available online, American libraries would do well to proactively establish and exercise these rights for older works now languishing in obscurity.

4. Strengthen and sustain coalitions for reasonable copyright limits

The curtailment of the public domain is just one aspect of the overreach of copyright law in the US and elsewhere.  Right now, Congress is considering two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), whose enforcement provisions threaten to disrupt the core structures of the Internet and enable far-reaching censorship, in the name of stopping piracy.  Supporters of these bills hoped to have them passed by Christmas, but opposition from both “left” and “right” sides of the political spectrum has slowed the process down, caused some companies to withdraw support, and led to the proposal of less harmful alternatives for fighting piracy.

It’s still quite possible that SOPA and PIPA will pass, though.   Public Domain Day provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect on some of the good reasons for limiting the power and scope of copyright enforcement, and to redouble efforts to keep those limits reasonable.  Moreover, a coalition that can stop SOPA and PIPA can also work to prevent further extensions of copyright terms.  This can ensure that Americans will have more to celebrate in Public Domain Days to come– especially starting in 2019, when the remaining 1923 copyrights should finally expire in the US.

5. Give copyrights of your own to the public domain

Of course, those wishing to maximize public access and use of their works don’t have to wait for their copyrights to expire on their own.  They can dedicate them to the public domain any time they want.  Public Domain Day is a particularly auspicious time to make such gifts, no matter what country you’re in.  And with tools like the CC0 declaration, it’s easier than ever to do so.

A few years ago, I started an annual personal tradition of reviewing copyrights to works I’d created more than 14 years ago (the original initial term of copyright enacted by the founders of the US, and also approximately the ideal copyright term given in a recent economic analysis) and dedicating works to the public domain that I didn’t feel needed further copyright.  Accordingly, today I dedicate all the work of my creation that I published in 1997, and for which I still control rights, to the public domain.  For me, this consists primarily of websites like The Online Books Page as of that year, and other online writings.  But others have dedicated more high-profile material to the public domain after the same term.   And I’d be very happy to hear from others who are making similar dedications today (whether or not it’s after 14 years).

So, happy Public Domain Day to everyone in the US and elsewhere!  We all have things to celebrate, and things we can do, in the name of the public domain.

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