Public Domain Day 2016: Freezes and thaws

For most of the past 55 years, the public domain in the United States has gone through a series of partial or complete freezes.  We’ve gotten used to them by now.  A thaw is coming soon, though, if there are no further changes in US copyright terms.  But right now, our government is trying to export freezes abroad, and is on the brink of succeeding.   And our own thaw is not yet a sure thing.

The freezes began in 1962, when Congress extended the length of copyright renewal terms in anticipation of an overhaul of copyright law.  Copyrights from 1906 that had been expiring over the course of that year stopped expiring.  The first extension was for a little over 3 years, but Congress kept passing new extensions before the old extensions ran out, until the 1976 Copyright Act established new, longer terms for copyright.  The 1906 copyrights that were frozen in 1962 would not enter the public domain until the start of 1982.

The freeze of the public domain in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t complete.  Unrenewed copyrights continued to expire after 28 years, and works published without a copyright notice entered the public domain right away.  In 1982, all the traditional routes to the public domain were open again: age, non-renewal, publication without notice, and so on.  But that would only last about 7 years.   In 1989, the non-notice route was frozen out: from then on, anything published, or even written down, was automatically copyrighted, whether the author intended that or not.  In 1992, the non-renewal route was frozen out: copyrights would automatically run a full term whether or not the author or their heirs applied for a renewal.  In 1996, many non-US works were removed from the public domain, and returned to copyright, as if they had always been published with notice and renewals.  And finally in 1998, copyright expiration due to sheer age was also frozen out.  Due to a copyright extension passed that year, no more old published works would enter the public domain for another 20 years.  The freeze of the public domain became virtually complete at that point, with the trailing edge of copyrights stuck at the end of 1922.  It’s still there today.

But a thaw is in sight.  Just 3 years from now, in 2019, works published in 1923 that are still under copyright are scheduled to finally enter the public domain in the US.  Assuming we manage to stop any further copyright extensions, we’ll see another year’s worth of copyrights enter the public domain every January 1 from then on– just as happens in many other countries around the world.  Today, in most of Europe, and other countries that follow life+70 years terms, works by authors who died in 1945 (including everyone who died in World War II) finally enter the public domain.  In Canada, and other countries that follow the life+50 years terms of the Berne Convention, works by authors who died in 1965 enter the public domain.  The Public Domain Review shows some of the more famous people in these groups, and there are many more documented at Wikipedia.

But this may be the last year for a long while that people in Canada, and some other countries, see new works enter the public domain.  This past year, trade representatives from Canada, the US, and various other countries approved the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that includes a requirement pushed by the US to extend copyrights to life+70 years.  Those extensions would take place as soon as the TPP is ratified by a sufficient number of governments. In Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, that would mean a 20-year freeze in the public domain, potentially coming into effect just before the US’s 20-year near-total freeze is scheduled to end.

Supporters of the public domain should not take either the pending freezes or the pending thaws for granted.  When the TPP was agreed on this past October, the leaders of the US and Canadian governments  were strong TPP supporters.  But the government of Canada has changed since then, and it looks like the US government might not put TPP to a vote until after the 2016 elections.  Canada’s new government, and some of the leading US candidates, seem to be more on the fence about TPP than their predecessors.  Organized public action could well shift their stance, in either direction.

While we’re awaiting a thaw in the US, we can still map out and digitize more of the public domain we have.  HathiTrust has been doing a wonderful job opening access to hundreds of thousands of post-1922 public domain books via its copyright review activities.   But other categories of unrenewed copyrights are not yet as well lit up.  For instance, Duke’s summary of the 1959 copyrights that could have been expiring today mentions 3 scholarly journals– Nature, Science, and JAMA, whose 1959 articles are behind paywalls at their publishers’ sites.  But it turns out that none of those journals renewed copyrights for their 1959 issues — the first issue to be renewed of any of them was the January 9, 1960 issue of JAMA — so we can digitize and open access to much of that content without waiting for the publishers to do so.

In the next three years, I’d love to see digital projects in the US make the post-1922 public domain as visible and comprehensive online as the pre-1923 public domain is now.  And then, if we ensure the thaw comes on schedule in the US, and we stave off freezes elsewhere, I hope we can quickly make another full year’s worth of public domain available every New Year’s Day.  Maybe once we get used to that happening in the US, we’ll be less likely to allow the public domain to freeze up again.
Happy Public Domain Day!  May we all soon have ample reason to celebrate it every year, all around the world.


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.

From Wikipedia to our libraries

I’ve heard the lament in more than one library discussion over the years.  “People aren’t coming to our library like they should,” librarians have told me.  “We’ve got a rich collection, and we’ve expended lots of resources on an online presence, but lots of our patrons just go to Google and Wikipedia without checking to see what we have.”  The pattern of quick online information-finding using search engines and Wikipedia is well-known enough that it has its own acronym: GWR, for Google -> Wikipedia -> References.  (David White gives a good description of that pattern in the linked article.)

Some people I’ve talked to think we should break this pattern.  With the right search tool or marketing plan, some say, we can get patrons to start with us first, instead of Google or Wikipedia.  This idea seems to me both futile and beside the point.  Between them, Google and Wikipedia cover a vast array of online information, more than librarians could hope to replicate or index ourselves in that medium.  Also, if we truly have better resources available in our libraries than can be found on the open Web, it’s less important that our researchers start from our libraries’ websites than that they end up finding the knowledge resources our libraries make available to them.

Looked at the right way, Wikipedia can be a big help in making online readers aware of their library’s offerings.  One of the things we spend a lot of time on in libraries is organizing information into distinct, conceptual categories.  That’s what Wikipedia does too: so far,  their English edition has over 4 million concepts identified, described, and often populated with reference links.  And Wikipedia has encouraged people to add links to relevant digital library collections on various topics, through programs like Wikipedia Loves Libraries and Wikipedian in Residence programs.  But while these programs help bring some library resources online, and direct people to those selected resources, there’s still a lot of other relevant library material that users can’t get to via Wikipedia, but can via the libraries that are near them.

So how do we get people from Wikipedia articles to the related offerings of our local libraries?  Essentially we need three things: First, we need ways to embed links in Wikipedia to the libraries that readers use.  (We can’t reasonably add individual links from an article to each library out there, because there are too many of them– there has to be a way that each Wikipedia reader can get to their own favored libraries via the same links.)  Second, we need ways to derive appropriate library concepts and local searches from the subjects of Wikipedia articles, so the links go somewhere useful.  Finally, we need good summaries of the resources a reader’s library makes available on those concepts, so the links end up showing something useful.  With all of these in place, it should be possible for researchers to get from a Wikipedia article on a topic straight to a guide to their local library’s offerings on that topic in a single click.

I’ve developed some tools to enable these one-click Wikipedia -> library transitions.  For the first thing we need, I’ve created a set of Wikipedia templates for adding library links. The documentation for the Library resources box template, for instance, describes how to use it to create a sidebar box with links to resources about (or by) the topic of  a Wikipedia article in a reader’s library, or in another library a reader might want to consult.  (There’s also an option for direct links to my Online Books Page, if there are relevant books online; it may be easier in some cases for readers to access those than to access their local library’s books.)

For the links to work, we need to know about the reader’s preferred library.  Users can register their preferred library (which will set a cookie in their browser recording that choice), or select it for each individual search.  We know how to link to several dozen libraries so far, and can add more libraries on, which includes holdings of thousands of libraries worldwide, is also an option.  Besides the “Library resources box” template, I’ve also provided templates for in-text links to library resources, if those work better in a given article.  Links to these templates can be found at the end of the “Library resources box” documentation.

For the second thing we need, I’ve created a library forwarding service (“Forward to Libraries”, or FTL– catchier name suggestions welcome) that transforms links from Wikipedia into searches for appropriate  headings or keywords in local libraries.  This is the same service I describe in my “From my library to yours” blog post from last month, but it now supports links from Wikipedia as well as to Wikipedia.

Thanks to information included in the Library of Congress’ Authorities and Vocabularies datasets, OCLC’s VIAF data feeds, Wikipedia’s database downloads, and my own metadata compiled at The Online Books Page, FTL already knows how to link directly to over 240,000 distinct authority-controlled headings known to the Library of Congress from their corresponding Wikipedia articles.   (Library of Congress headings are used in most sizable US libraries, and many English-language libraries outside the US also use similar headings.)

For other articles, FTL by default will try a general keyword search based on the Wikipedia article’s title, which will often turn up useful results at the destination library.  Alternatively, my templates allow Wikipedia editors to determine a specific Library of Congress heading to use in library links, if appropriate.  I’m hoping to incorporate suggested headings into FTL’s own knowledge base as I detect them showing up in Wikipedia articles.  I also plan to publish FTL’s data sets under open access terms, so that others can use and improve on them as well.

The third part of this solution– displaying relevant resources at the destination library— can be implemented differently at each library.  For most of the libraries in FTL’s current knowledge base, links go to searches in the library’s regular online catalog.  But with some libraries, I’ve linked to another discovery system, if it seems to be the main search promoted at that library, and it seems to produce useful results.  The Online Books Page’s subject map displays also have features that I think will be useful to Wikipedia subject researchers arriving at my site, such as also showing related subjects and books filed under those subjects.  I hope in future posts to talk more about other useful guideposts and contextual information we could be providing to readers arriving from Wikipedia.

But if you’ve read this far, you probably want to see how this all works in practice.  So I’ve added some example library resources boxes in a few Wikipedia articles that seemed particularly relevant this month, including those for Women’s history, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Flannery O’Connor.  Look down in the “External links” or “Further reading” sections of those articles for the boxes, and view the page source of the articles to see how those boxes are constructed.

As with most things related to Wikipedia, this service is experimental, and subject to change (and, hopefully,  improvement) over time.  I’d love to hear thoughts and suggestions from users and maintainers of Wikipedia and libraries.  And if you find creating these sort of links from Wikipedia useful, and need help getting started, I’d be happy to help you bring them to your favorite Wikipedia topics and local libraries, as time permits.

From my library to yours

Even with well over one and half million books and serials, the collection I maintain at The Online Books Page is far from comprehensive.  The gaps in coverage are not hard to notice at sites like mine, because most material published under copyright– which can be as much as 90 years old at this point– is not made freely available online.  But all libraries, no matter how large or well-provisioned, have their gaps.  No one can collect everything, and a persistent reader or researcher will eventually find that their questions and interests go beyond the bounds of any particular collection.

However, there are lots of libraries out there, as well as lots of online information and literature that hasn’t been collected into an institutional library.  A good library, of whatever size, serves its users well by collecting the most useful materials it can get for their needs, and helping them get whatever else they need in other places.  Jeff Jarvis expressed this basic idea well a few years ago when discussing news organizations: “Cover what you do best.  Link to the rest.”

Many libraries already do this, in certain ways.  The inter-library loan system helps library users who know they want a particular title their own library doesn’t have.  Many libraries also maintain links to websites on various topics from their own library website or catalog.  But these links, often maintained separately by each library, can only cover so much ground, as librarians have limited time to collect and maintain links.  Even consortially maintained collections of links struggle to go beyond fairly generalized or particular-niche focuses, and stay current.

Libraries can do more, though.  People coming to a library often have a particular topic in mind that they want to learn or read more about.  They’re often looking for something they can pick up quickly, and for free.  Knowing what that topic is, we should be able to point them towards useful literature they can quickly and freely obtain, whether or not it’s a title they already had in mind, and whether or not it’s in our own collection or something we link to directly.  That’s the purpose of some new links now available on The Online Books Page.

For example, say you’re a high school student looking for books on the Underground Railroad.  If you browse to this subject on the Online Books Page, you’ll find a number of free online books I list on this topic, and related topics.  As before, you can explore those related topics, if you’re interested (maybe checking out fugitive slave biographies, for instance); or you can try digging deeper for books specifically on the Underground Railroad via the extended shelves.

But most of what you’ll find on my site will be 19th century and early 20th century materials.  Your local library is likely to have books you can freely read as well, reflecting more up-to-date historical research, as well as books that might be more accessible to a high school student.  There might also be useful research materials online that you can look at for free.

That’s why there’s a new “See also…” note just under the big “Underground Railroad” heading.  If you click on the words “your library” in that note, you’ll be referred to your regular library, if we know about it, to see what they have on the Underground Railroad.  (If you haven’t already told us which local library you want to use regularly, we give you a list of choices.  It’s a pretty small list to start with, but I’m taking requests for more libraries to add.  Or you can opt for OCLC’s– they cover lots of libraries throughout North America and beyond.)  Even after you register a preferred library, you’re not stuck with only using that one.  You can click on the “elsewhere” link in the note to try a different library or service from the one you usually check– like maybe the university library that’s near your public library (or vice versa).

You might also want to find online research resources that aren’t books.  For some of those, try clicking on the Wikipedia link provided for this subject.  While the quality and reliability of Wikipedia articles themselves can vary, most mature Wikipedia entries include a rich set of useful links to more information.  (I’ve discussed previously how useful Wikipedia is as a concept-oriented catalog.)  The references and external links on Wikipedia’s Underground Railroad article, for instance, cover a wide range of informational websites, contemporary and current books, and digital library collections.

Similarly, if you’re looking at a list of online books by a particular author (like, say, W. E. B. Dubois), you’ll find a link at the bottom of the page to find more books by the author in libraries, as well as links to online books or Wikipedia articles about the author near the top.  There are also links to find library copies of a particular book on its detailed catalog page; see for instance, the links at the bottom of our catalog entry for The Souls of Black Folk.  This can be useful for people who want a print copy, or a different edition from the ones we list.

So far, I’ve added links from The Online Books Page to Wikipedia for more than 17,000 subjects, and links to library catalogs for millions of subjects, authors, and titles.  (My thanks to OCLC, the Library of Congress, and Wikipedia for providing bulk access to the data that makes it possible to do much of this automatically.)  I’ll be developing this service further, and doing more things with this data, in ways that I hope to describe here shortly.  But I hope this first step is a useful demonstration of ways that different kinds of libraries and catalogs– online and local, academic and public, institutional and informal– can support each other through user-directed, context-sensitive, concept-level links between collections.

Public Domain Day 2013: or, There and Back Again

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.