Acknowledging the public domain

Many online publishers, particularly those that have been around for a while, now have large quantities of material that is in the public domain. The reasons vary: Some material was produced by US government agencies, such as NASA. Some material was published before 1923, too long ago be copyrighted in the US. There’s also a fair bit of later material that’s public domain due to lack of maintenance of the copyright. For instance, US-originating copyrights before 1964 had to be renewed with the Copyright Office, or they would expire after 28 years.

Some publishers are reluctant not only to provide this material openly, but even to acknowledge its public domain status. So it’s refreshing to see some of them starting to do so, even when the public domain status is not obvious.

This morning, for instance, I was happy to see, via Alex Golub and Open Access News, that the American Anthropological Association openly acknowledges on its permissions page that “AAA article content published before 1964 is in the public domain and may be used and copied without permission.” The reason for this appears to be non-renewal. As is the case for most periodicals (see a 2006 presentation of mine on this point), the AAA’s flagship journal, American Anthropologist, had no copyright renewals, a fact which I’ve now recorded in my inventory of periodicals renewals. I suspect that the AAA was generally not renewing copyrights for any of its publications at the time, and that its acknowledgement above reflects this.

The AAA does ask (politely, not as a legal demand) for acknowledgement and backlinks to their AnthroSource archive in web reproductions of public domain articles. But they’re otherwise happy to allow people to copy them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the articles are easy to copy. The AAA relies on JSTOR for providing its older issues online. JSTOR has the American Anthropologist back-run going to the very first issues in 1888, but it won’t actually give me access to the articles in the public domain issues unless I use my institution’s subscription. (And even then, JSTOR’s standard terms and conditions, which institutions normally agree to when they subscribe, prohibit downloading and redistributing full issues, whether or not they’re copyrighted.) It would be nice if JSTOR’s policies were liberalized for their public domain content, but at least AAA has acknowledged that their articles can be reproduced once obtained by legitimate means.

Some other institutions appear to be liberalizing their policies for access as well. Yesterday, I heard Michael Edson of the Smithsonian talk at the Digital Library Federation spring forum (where I am now), where he mentioned that the Smithsonian was planning to put many of its digital resources onto image sharing sites under open access arrangements such as Creative Commons licenses, so folks could openly reuse, repurpose, and enrich them. This will be a welcome change from the policies of many Smithsonian units, whose terms of use sometimes prohibit use of their public online images even on a personal web page, without permission, “even in the absence of copyright”.

This policy change was not necessarily natural or inevitable. I suspect the challenge from last year, where they cited a Yale law prof calling the Smithsonian’s rights claims “nonsense on stilts” and downloaded thousands of their images anyway, may have had something to do with it. And the Smithsonian is sufficiently large and decentralized — Michael in his talk said they had at least 150 different web teams among their 12,000 staff and volunteer workers — that they may continue to have a range of open access policies in their various units.

So while American Anthropologist and the Smithsonian images are not yet as fully openly accessible as they could be, their publishers are making significant moves in the right direction. We can help them and other publishers keep moving in that direction, by asserting the rights of the public, and by crediting publishers when they acknowledge them.

UPDATE (2 pm): After looking around the Web some, I’ve found 6 years worth of American Anthropologist freely available online, all from before 1923, scanned by mass digitization projects. I’ll add this collection to The Online Books Page listings tonight, and would be very interested in hearing of more volumes I can add. The mass digitization projects have usually stopped at 1922, but as we see above, public domain digitizers don’t have to.

ILS-Discovery interoperation: New recommendation draft, last call for comments

The new draft of the ILS-Discovery recommendations I mentioned in my last post is now out. You can download it, and read more about it, on our task force wiki.

As I mentioned previously, we intend this draft to be the last release before the official final version. We don’t expect to change the basic recommended functions in major ways in the final draft, though there’s a lot more that can be said and done to promote interoperability beyond these first steps we’ve taken.

We are very interested in correcting and clarifying anything that is erroneous, ambiguous, or unclear, particularly in the Level 1 functionality we recommend. Comments can be emailed to me (“ockerblo” at “”) between now and Friday, May 9; I’ll pass them along to the task force working on this. We hope to do our final revisions and then release the official recommendation not long afterwards.

The task force will also be conducting a birds-of-a-feather discussion session at next week’s DLF Spring Forum in Minneapolis. The session will be held at 2:30 on Tuesday, April 29, in Greenway B on the second floor of the conference hotel. Topics of discussion include the Berkeley accord (the agreement with vendors and developers that informed this draft), the draft recommendation and its upcoming finalization, implementing the recommendation, and how to continue and build on efforts to promote and standardize interoperation between the ILS and discovery applications.

I’m still working on an example implementation of the Level 1 functions, but have been busy enough with the draft not to finish it yet (or blog about much else lately; there are some other topics in the pipeline, though!) I hope to point to that soon. And if you’re interested in our recommendation or what it’s trying to accomplish, I hope to hear from you. And maybe I’ll see you in Minneapolis next week.

ILS-Discovery interoperation: It’s happening; more details coming soon

As Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, announced last week, we have an agreement with many of the developers and vendors of integrated library systems and discovery applications to support a basic set of functions to allow ILS’s and discovery applications to interoperate. (I’ve written about this effort previously here and here.)

This basic set is a subset (what we’re calling “Basic Discovery Interfaces” or “level 1”) of the full set of functions we will be recommending, and we still have to specify some of the details about how the Level 1 functions will be invoked by discovery applications. But it’s a very important first step. The functions it includes should enable an interesting array of discovery applications to work with a variety of ILS’s. And I hope that our work will result in some useful implementations soon, and help encourage further interoperability and standards to develop, based on our recommendations.

The functions, in summary, are

  • Harvesting bibliographic and, when requested, expanded records from an ILS, in full or incrementally. (Expanded records also include information on holdings, availability, and other data relevant to discovery not in the bibliographic record proper.) This allows independent search indexes to be made for a library’s cataloged content. The recommended technology (or “binding”) will involve OAI-PMH. (Someone asked whether this would just export Dublin Core, the only metadata format OAI-PMH requires. Our answer: it’s supposed to include, at minimum, all the data in the bibliographic record that’s relevant for discovery. So for an ILS with MARC records, for instance, simple unqualified Dublin Core would not suffice, but MARC-XML records using a suitable XML schema like marc21 could.) [Editor note: this paragraph was changed 17 April, after re-reading Peter’s announcement]
  • Querying for availability of items in real time. This allows users to see if they can obtain information they’ve discovered in the library’s collection. Our recommended binding will involve a simple REST interface, with a URL request and a simple, expandable XML reply. (There are other ways of querying availability, including through NCIP, but given how difficult it’s been to get full implementations of NCIP, we want to make the basic required functionality as simple as possible. There’s been some discussion of what would be desirable on the ILS-DI Google group, which is open to the public.)
  • Linking back to any item in the OPAC, in a stable way, so that users can make requests on the item using the native OPAC/ILS interface interface if desired. We plan to allow ILS’s to declare a URL template, which would include the appropriate bibliographic or item identifier from the harvested records, for links back to the item. (Someone asked whether an OpenURL should be used here. It could be used, and we’d love to see an OpenURL-based suggested template. The basic functionality required here, however, doesn’t need the sophisticated features of the OpenURL, so while OpenURLs could well be a particularly useful way to formulate both this simple linkback and more sophisticated, detailed OPAC linkback requests, we don’t plan to require OpenURL at Level 1.)

We’ll be releasing a new draft with more detail on the Level 1 functions within the next week, in time for people to read it before the next DLF Forum in Minneapolis, where we’ll be having a Birds of a Feather session to talk about implementing and building on our recommendations. I’m also hoping to have a sample implementation of the Level 1 functions very soon for The Online Books Page, and have implemented some of the functions already. (The OBP is not an ILS, but like an ILS, it manages bibliographic records and mediates access to texts; and the functions we specify in Level 1 can also be useful for interoperating with the Online Books Page collection.) I hope to see other implementations for ILS’s and other systems before long.

We’re hoping that this pre-Forum draft release can be the last full release before the official recommendation is released later this spring, to give folks the opportunity to point out any errors, ambiguities, or confusing aspects of what we recommend and specify. We hope to make any necessary corrections in short order, release the final recommendation, and then go sit on the beach and drink tequilas implement these functions, build cool new discovery applications, and help develop a community for using ILS data and services in productive and innovative ways.

I’m excited about what lies ahead, and if you are as well, I hope you’ll be a part of that community.

Coursepack sharing: An idea whose time has come?

For years, there’s been an uneasy truce between publishers and universities about the inclusion of copyrighted materials in universities’ online course web sites and “courseware” systems. Publishers and universities have been arguing for years over when posting such materials for courses is fair use, and when it requires permission and payment. While legal threats have sometimes been made or implied, involving universities like Cornell and UCSD (see this Library Journal article from October for background), the parties involved have tended eventually to either climb down or settle. (Cornell, for instance, negotiated an agreement with publishers in 2006.)

That general truce broke down this week, though. Three major academic publishers, with the backing of the Association of American Publishers, have sued Georgia State University officials over GSU’s postings of parts of their publications in their campus Blackboard and WebCT courseware systems. The plaintiffs contend that the posting of full chapters and lengthy excerpts in GSU’s courseware system is copyright infringement, not fair use, particularly when the Copyright Clearance Center offers licenses for many of those readings. I have not yet found a response from GSU.

At the same time, there’s been an increasing movement for university scholars, the authors of many of these course readings, to make their works freely available online, open for reading and reuse. Open Access News has recently posted summaries of recent open access mandates from bodies like NIH and Harvard, and of open textbook initiatives. The open courseware movement, where professors freely share their own course materials with the world, is also gaining steam, with many universities now offering open courseware sites, and a conference being held in China later this month to further extend the scope and reach of free course materials.

These two trends, combined, could lead to some interesting outcomes. If schools, for whatever reason, want to eliminate or minimize payment and permission requirements for course materials, and a growing body of literature potentially useful for course materials is openly available, then we can expect to see schools move towards building coursepacks made entirely, or mostly, of open access materials. They are therefore motivated to find, and build, systems for easily compiling such coursepacks.

Right now, it can be difficult to find suitable open access readings for a class you’re planning on teaching. Tools like OCWFinder help, but they’re more geared towards finding specific existing courses with open access materials (which might be no more than a syllabus and a few assignments in some cases) than finding specific open access readings that might be suitable for a planned course.

But in a world that’s brought us global content sharing systems like Flickr, CiteULike, and PubMedCentral, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine systems that would let instructors provide and share open access course readings more readily. A well-designed, browsable and searchable repository of such readings could provide a convenient way for professors to upload, organize, and disseminate open coursepacks for their students (“Just go to the OpenCoursePacks website, and type in the name of my course”, they could say). The same site could also let profs could tag, annotate, and recommend their readings, thereby making it that much easier for other professors to find and include suitable open access content in their own coursepacks. With a good design, and suitable scale and interest, a coursepack sharing site could make a lot more good instructional material widely and freely used and shared.

Will that happen? I don’t know. But it’s an intriguing idea, I think, and perhaps someone could run with it, or something like it. Perhaps someone already is.