Copyright information sharing: An update

I regularly get mail about the web pages I have on copyright registrations and renewals and the inventory I did on the first renewals of periodicals. Turns out a lot of folks, both inside and outside of libraries, are interested in reviving and repurposing old creative works, if they could just figure out whether they were still under copyright, and how to reach the copyright holders if they are.

Here’s part of a not atypical query I received recently (posted with permission):

My anticipated enterprise regards short fiction published predominantly in monthly war-era periodicals; the “usual” specificity of interest – ’23-’63 periodicals which might not have been timely renewed.

It appears to me, after an exhaustive study of public domain law & online resources, that your work is the current state of the art: the closest thing – right now – to definitive.

My question, then…is there, so far as you are aware, any “quantum leaps” anticipated to come down the pike in some forseeable future re: a “definitive” means to check ’23 – ’63 renewals? Especially online/searchable?

Again, THANKS beyond measure for your work; it’s the closest-to-perfect tool yet for exasperated publishers seeking to simply ascertain whether the project they’re considering is “doing the right thing” where not violating someone else’s property is concerned!

It’s both gratifying and frustrating to receive email like this: gratifying because it’s always nice to hear your my is benefiting people; frustrating because I know there’s so much more that could be done to share copyright information, especially when there are so many people interested in it.

And in fact, more is being done, and planned. I organized an open discussion at last spring’s Digital Library Federation (DLF) forum called “Sharing Copyright Information: Opportunities for Collaboration”. It was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation, involving people from a number of libraries and other organizations. Here are the notes from the session. For a good overview and background on many of the copyright issues discussed, see Stanford’s Copyright & Fair Use website.

There have been some notable developments since the spring. Carl Malamud and Peter Brantley have “liberated” recent copyright registration and renewal data from the Copyright Office’s database, making them available for analysis and indexing. Mimi Calter at Stanford has been refining and analyzing their database on book copyright renewals. Bill Carney at OCLC is planning a project for registering copyright information with WorldCat entries. You can read more about these and other initiatives in Peter Brantley’s “Checking Copyright” blog post from last month.

We’re still a long way from a one-stop shop for copyright research. But I hope to use the new data Peter and Carl have liberated to complete my inventory of periodical renewals (which now is complete only to about 1950). I’ve also heard from more than one group that would like to digitize all of the pre-1978 copyright registration and renewal records that are not in the Copyright Office’s online database. If we had good machine-readable data for new and old copyrights, we could construct powerful search engines for copyright registration research. I don’t know who’s actually going to supply this data, though, or how long it will be before it’s all available.

Of course, copyright registration searching is just one part of the problem of copyright clearance, which can involve complicated issues of provenance of works, rights, and information. I’ve recently made a presentation giving an overview of some of these questions (slides here) to an interested group of computer scientists, and a paper I wrote with more details on provenance issues in copyright research should be published later this month. (I’ll link to it when it comes out.)

I don’t want to have lots of people exerting redundant, expensive efforts to clear copyright, or to be deterred from reusing older works because clearing copyright is too difficult. It helps for those of us who are working in this area to keep each other informed about what we’re doing and finding out. So feel free to add a comment to this post if you have a question or useful information on copyright clearance. You can also email me (address in the “about” page) to suggest relevant items for future posts on copyright issues.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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4 Responses to Copyright information sharing: An update

  1. Georgia Harper says:

    Thanks for providing this update John. The University of Texas at Austin Libraries, a Google Book Search Project partner, is working to develop processes to aid in the identification of works in the public domain among those Google is scanning for us, from our Benson Latin American Collection. We plan to post both process and product of our efforts on our blog, which is just about to go live (called Free the books). We are very interested at this point in information about where we can begin to collect documentation about copyright status. We’re going to be generating a lot of information that will bear not only on public domain status, but on orphan works status as well, and we don’t want it to go to waste. We want to share it as effectively and efficiently as possible. Maybe we need some kind of summit on this subject, real or virtual.

  2. John Balow says:

    I would be very interested in hearing more about efforts to digitize pre-1978 copyright registrations in addition to the book renewals. The New York Public Library holds a pretty good set of the (U. S.) Catalog of Copyright Entries (a Federal Depository Library item?) that might serve as a foundation of such an undertaking. One prime issue seems to me to be scanning the pages in a manner to make importation into a robust database efficient.

  3. Distributed Proofreaders did the transcription of the printed volumes of the copyright renewals. They were type-written and did NOT produce very good OCR results. Quite a lot of human (volunteer) time went into getting accurate transcriptions from the scans. I’m extremely skeptical that any automated process will produce accurate results. So “scanning the pages” is only the beginning of the process and the tip of the ice berg.

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