Public Domain Day 2015: Ending our own enclosures

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.