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.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.
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One Response to Acknowledging the public domain

  1. I’d say that the interest of public resource was definitely a powerful stimulant here at SI. A catalyst. But from my perspective, the change towards a consistent policy that encourages open access is both natural and inevitable. I’m not sure how fast it will happen, and I’m not sure which layers will be easier or harder to make progress with, but my feeling is that the staff here really gets it – – it’s harmonious with our mission and calling.

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