The week between Christmas and New Years is mostly time off for me– I’ve added no new listings to The Online Books Page this past week, for instance– but even on vacation, as long as I have a working Internet connection I still tend to fix bad links as I hear about them from readers’ reports.  I try to draw from a variety of free online book sources, instead of just a few big ones; that’s worthwhile to me because it increases the diversity of titles and editions on the site.  But the tradeoff is that many of these sites disappear, reorganize, or otherwise have links go bad over time.  I’m grateful to my readers for reporting bad links to me, and I can often fix other bad links to the same site when I fix the one reported to me.

The links and sites that persist, and those that don’t, often aren’t the ones you might expect.  Who’d have thought, for instance, that a shoestring-budget project that didn’t even maintain its own website until fairly recently would have the longest-lived (and still one of the largest) electronic book collections in common use, outlasting many better-funded or more systematically planned projects (as well as its own doggedly persistent original champion)?  Although the links to Project Gutenberg’s ebooks have changed over the years, the persistence of their etext numbers, and the proliferation of Gutenberg sites and mirrors, has made it relatively easy for me to keep links working for their more than 40,000 ebooks.

Some library-sponsored sites use persistent link redirection technologies, such as PURLs, to keep their links working.  But technology alone isn’t sufficient for persistence.  I recently had to update all of my links going to a PURL-based library consortium site.  I’m sure the people who worked at the organization hosting the site would have kept the links working if they could, but the organization itself was defunded by the state, and its functions were taken over by a new agency that didn’t preserve the links.

Fortunately, the failure had a couple of graceful aspects that eased recovery.  First of all, the old links didn’t stop working altogether, but redirected to the front page of a digital repository in which people could search for the titles they were looking for.  Second, the libraries in the consortium still maintained their own websites, and the old links included a serial number unique to each text (similar to Gutenberg’s etext numbers) that was also used by member libraries.  I found that in most cases I could automatically rewrite my links, using that serial number, so that they would point to a copy at a contributing library’s website.  This made it easier for me to rewrite my links, even though they go to new sites, than it’s often been for me to update links to sites that persist but reorganize.   (For instance, I’ve seen sites change to new content management systems that used completely different URLs from their old design, and then had to manually relocate and verify each link one at a time.)

Sometimes I have to replace links that still “work”, technically.  I used to have thousands of links to a Canadian consortium that provided free access to scanned public domain books and pamphlets from that country’s history.  Not long ago, I discovered that while my links still work, the site had gone to a subscription model where readers have to pay for access beyond the first dozen or so pages of each text. Given the precarious state of Canadian library funding, I’m sure the people running the site were simply doing what they thought necessary to ensure the persistence of the sponsoring organization (which continues to provide new electronic texts and services).  Personally, however, I was more concerned about the persistence of free access to the digitized texts I’d pointed to.  Fortunately, a number of the consortium’s member libraries had also uploaded copies of their scans to the Internet Archive, using the same serial numbers used on the Canadian consortium’s website.  As a result, I was able to quickly update most of my links to point to the Internet Archive’s copies.  I intend to track down working alternative links to the 200 or so remaining texts, or post requests seeking other copies of these texts, when time permits.  (I’ve also sent along a donation to the Internet Archive, in part to thank them for continuing to provide access to texts like these.)

It’s been said in digital library literature that persistence of identifiers is more a matter of policy than technology.  Based on the experiences I’ve related above, the practical persistence of links is even more a matter of will than of policy: the will (and ability) to keep maintaining access through changing conditions; the willingness to consider alternatives to specific organizational structures or policies if the original ones turn out not to be tenable; the willingness to pick things up again, or let others pick them up, after a failure.

It’s also clear from my experience that practically speaking, failure is not the main enemy of persistence.   More of a threat is not recovering from failure, or being so worried about failure that one doesn’t even begin to sustain the thing or the purpose that should persist.  To riff off a famous G. K. Chesterton quote, if it’s worth doing something, it’s worth being willing and ready to fail at doing it.  And then, to be willing to pick up again where you left off, or to make it easy for someone else to pick it up, and try something new.

That’s persistence.  That’s what’s ultimately gotten the dissertation rewritten, the estates settled, the blog picked up again, the books put and kept online for the world to read, and many other things I’ve found worthwhile, despite difficulties, anxieties, and setbacks.  I value that persistence, and I hope you value it as well, for the things you find worthwhile. I look forward to seeing where it takes us in the year to come.

In which I finally buy an ebook

In my last post, I discussed why I wanted to buy ebooks I could truly own, and my subsequent attempts to buy such a  copy of John Scalzi’s Redshirts from a readers’-rights-friendly retailer.  I initially had a hard time finding an ebook store that fulfilled three basic requirements:

  1. The store must sell a DRM-free copy of the book, in a convenient format.  That eliminated specialized ebook stores that didn’t carry the title at all.  Also, a number of major sites only had DRM-locked versions at first.
  2. The store must make the format and DRM-free status clear. Most mass-market ebooks are still locked down with DRM, and I don’t want to get stuck with that, either for this title or for other titles I might buy.  So the store had to make it clear what I was buying, either by a notation on the book’s catalog page, or by a general policy stating that books they offered were DRM-free.
  3. The store must not require me to agree to give up my rights as a reader under copyright law.  In particular, I would not consent to any terms of sale that significantly limited my rights of fair use or first sale.  Fair use allows me to make copies of copyrighted material under certain conditions, such as quoting and critiquing a small portion in my own work, or making a complete personal copy of a  TV show I’ve received or CD I’ve  bought, for more convenient consumption.  First sale lets me decide how to dispose of a book once I’ve bought it, including giving over the copy of something I’ve already lawfully acquired to someone else.  (First sale rights also let libraries lend out books without having to ask publishers first.)  Each of these rights has limits, and there are still disputes over how far these rights can be applied to digital content.  But I didn’t want to pre-emptively sign away rights that copyright law might give me.

I didn’t think it would be that hard to find a retailer to meet these requirements.  But here’s what I found when I went shopping:

Barnes and Noble: Since we owned a Nook, I first called up the store app on that device.  The ebook was simply marked as a “Nook Book”, with no clear differentation between a DRM-free and a DRM-locked copy.  (The current catalog page for the book now mentions in the overview that it’s being sold without DRM, though  not very prominently.)  I also recalled that to get access to the store in the first place, I had to click through a terms of service agreement.   Reviewing that on the web turned up a clause saying I couldn’t “copy, transfer, sublicense, assign, rent, lease, lend, resell or in any way transfer any rights to all or any portion of the Digital Content to any third party” except under certain explicit, very limited conditions.  In other words, give up first sale rights to anything I bought in the Nook store.  Rather than do that, I moved on to another retailer.

Amazon: There was no clear mention of DRM status on the book’s catalog page initially (even now, I don’t see it there until I click on “show more”).  Anazon uses its own Kindle (mobi) format for its books, so I’d need to convert it to a different format (possibly degrading the layout in the process) or get a Kindle reading program or device. The Kindle License Agreement and Terms of Use limits how I’m allowed to read books they sell, disallows third party transfers except by explicit permission, and in case I missed the point, explicitly states “Digital Content is licensed, not sold”.  No sale here, then.

Google:  Going over to Google Books, I find this book available through Google Play.  The catalog page doesn’t tell me what format it’s in, or whether it has DRM; it instead just asks me to sign in to buy it.  Google then tells me I have to agree to their terms, which again include no third party transfers, before it will give me access to whatever formats it may let me download.  If I read the book online within Google Play itself, its  privacy policy allows it to look over my shoulder to a limited extent while I’m reading.  Google pledges to use this power only for good, but personally I’d prefer to download and keep my reading details to myself in the first place, thanks.

Sony Reader store: Information on format and DRM status is not clear for its books.  Based on Sony’s past history with DRM, there’s no way I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt with the formats they might use.

Independent bookstores: I  also looked into whether I could buy an ebook through one of the independent bookstores I’ve liked shopping in.  Unfortunately, they don’t seem to offer much.  My local indie store doesn’t appear to sell ebooks at all, and Powell’s doesn’t offer seem to offer this title at present.  Independents in the IndeBound ebook program appear to just be referral agents for Google Books.

Diesel eBooks: The slogan “More freedom, more ebooks” seemed promising when I found this site.  Diesel offers both DRM-locked and DRM-free titles, and their catalog pages make it very clear which is which.   Unfortunately, they only offered a DRM-locked version of Redshirts for weeks after it was first released.  However, I recently went back to the site and found they’d switched to the DRM-free version.  Buying that ebook consisted of registering my name and email address, giving them my credit card information, and downloading an EPub file.  No click-through agreements were involved, and when I went over to look at the general terms of use for the site, they basically amounted to “don’t abuse the site, or infringe copyright”.  In short, I gave them money, and they gave me an ebook, and said “Enjoy!”, with no further fuss. That’s the kind of book shopping I like.

So there’s at least one reasonably comprehensive and reader-friendly ebookstore out there.  I’d be happy to hear about others as well.  And I look forward to buying and owning more books, in both print and electronic formats.

In which I try to buy an ebook

Not long ago I went to the bookstore and bought some books.

This is how: I found some books I liked on the shelves, brought them to the front counter, and handed the clerk some money.  The clerk put my books and a receipt into a bag, and ended the transaction by handing me the bag and saying “Enjoy!”

So that’s what I did.  As I left the store, I thought about which book I’d start on the train home, and about all the other things I could do with my new books.  I could read them to myself, read out load to my family, lend them out to friends, cite or briefly quote them in my own work, trade them in at the used bookshop, donate them to the local library, bequeath them to my heirs, cut things out from them and post them on my wall, make origami art out of the pages, or lots of other things that neither I nor the bookseller had yet imagined.  As long as I didn’t violate copyright or other laws, neither the bookstore, the publisher, nor anyone else had any further say in how I  enjoyed the books.  They were mine.

I also own a number of books on my computers, but not ones I’ve bought, at least not as ebooks.  (They’re all in the public domain, or came bundled with a print edition I bought, or are free authorized digital editions. I don’t do bootlegs.)  But I wanted to buy electronic books as well– books I liked that weren’t being offered for free or in bundles; books where I could support the authors and publishers through my purchase.

Unfortunately, there weren’t many ebooks of interest that I could buy– at least not if “buying” means “owning”.  Oh, I could call up a store app on my Nook, or go to Amazon online, where they offered me book files in return for some money and my consent to a take-it-or-leave-it agreement.   A file I paid for wouldn’t be a book I owned, it would be a file that I licensed under a non-negotiable contract, and I could only do with the file what the vendor, the publisher, and other parties to the agreement decreed I could do.  The file itself would be encrypted with “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), that would only allow display by approved programs that carefully controlled whether and how I could read the book. And if those programs stopped working, or decided to revoke my right to read the book, or if I wanted to use the books on some other system, or in some other way they didn’t anticipate and approve of, tough luck for me.  (Technically, I could break the encryption, but I would be breaking the law if I did.)   And I shouldn’t even think about trying to pass along the book to someone else– unless I was lucky enough to find a title eligible for some very limited lending experiments certain publishers and vendors were trying out.  I have books in my home that my grandparents read 100 years ago, but I had little hope my grandchildren would be able to read ebooks like these, at least not legally.

A few places offered DRM-free books for sale, but they tended either to offer titles I preferred to read in print (like the computer books published by O’Reilly), or they didn’t offer many titles of interest to me.  I wasn’t going to get into the habit of buying ebooks unless there was a critical mass of titles worth aggregating into a personal library.

So I was thrilled when Tor, a major science fiction publisher and an imprint of one of the Big Six publishing companies, announced that all of their books would soon be sold DRM-free.  They weren’t the first SF imprint to take this route– Baen, for instance, has been offering DRM-free titles for years– but Tor had enough authors I liked that I could see myself buying ebooks from them fairly regularly.  Tor’s first DRM-free release would be John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a book I’d already been hoping to buy, and which I now decided to buy as an ebook.  That would let me try out the new format, and also thank Tor and Scalzi for taking the initiative to let readers just own their books.  (And if Tor’s initiative does well, other imprints might follow.)

I originally planned to buy the ebook on its release date.  But even when an author and a publisher are ready to go, it can take a while to get the retailers on board.  On the day Redshirts came out, many ebook stores delivered DRM-locked files instead of the DRM-free edition readers expected.  (Thankfully, Tor offered free exchanges almost right away.)  More worrisome to me, though, was that many of the major ebook retailer sites wouldn’t complete a transaction unless I first indicated consent to a “take it or leave it” agreement that appeared to sign away important rights readers normally have to books they buy.  Unlike the print books I bought in the bookstore, my enjoyment of the ebooks I got from these sellers would be restricted by their contractual demands, above and beyond the standard constraints of copyright law.  DRM or no DRM, the ebooks would not  truly be my own if I agreed to those demands.

Eventually, though, I found a retailer that offered what I wanted without any unacceptable strings attached, and I’m now a happy Redshirts ebook owner and reader.  I’ll describe my experience buying the book from that retailer, and not buying the book from some better-known retailers, in my next post.

Finding the (market) value in freeing books

I list a number of books on The Online Books Page that are relatively recent copyrighted books  put online with the permission of the copyright holder.  I am very thankful to the authors and other rightsholders who have agreed to share their works with the world.

But although I’ve been avidly collecting such listings, along with a much larger number of pubic domain listings, for nearly 20 years, the vast majority of copyrighted books have not been made freely readable online by their rightsholders. One of the more significant reasons is that many writers (particularly those who depend on writing income for a living) hope to earn money from selling their work rather than giving it away.  Indeed, as the market for selling ebooks has grown, I’ve occasionally needed to delist titles where the author or publisher withdrew their free copies in favor of selling Kindle or Nook editions.  Such sales can provide some income, but at the cost of a reduced audience. Meanwhile, many other books remain both offline and out of print, not available at all except in a limited number of used and library copies.  This situation isn’t good either for many readers (who may have a hard time finding or reading the book) or for authors (who, at least in the US, make no money from used book sales or library loans).

Eric Hellman and his colleagues at Gluejar think they can improve matters for both readers and writers:  Find a way to pay authors or other rightsholders to make their books freely readable (and possibly adaptable) online.  In particular, use the Internet to pull together a crowd of supporters for books no longer readily available, who collectively pay for the rights to make the work openly accessible.  If they succeed, the author gets some more money, and the world gets the gift of a book to freely read and share.  In such a crowd-funded market for freeing books, everybody can end up better off than they were before.

Projects like Kickstarter, in which online funders collectively supported more than 10,000 new creative projects last year, show that such crowd-funding can be valuable, viable and scalable.  But every kind of market is different, and the dot-com boom and bust showed that certain kinds of online marketplaces were wildly successful, and others, not so much.  You don’t really know what a new kind of market is going to look like until you have a go at creating it.

So I was pleased and intrigued when Gluejar launched on May 17, with campaigns to collectively buy rights to make five out-of-print books freely available to the world.  The opening campaigns are still in progress, but after 11 days and a fair bit of publicity, we can start to get an idea of how this particular market is developing.

The first thing I notice is that the initial funding goals in many cases erred on the side of optimism.  The goal prices for rights to the first batch of books, all of which appear to be previously published but now out of print, range from $7,500 to $50,000, but only one of the books has managed to raise more than $500 in its first 11 days.  Unless pledges pick up substantially (or the goals are lowered, something that the rules appear to allow), most of these books aren’t going to get funded.

However, one of the initial books, Oral Literature in Africa, stands a decent chance at meeting its goal.  Currently 34% of the way there with 24 days to go, it’s raised more money in pledges as I write this than all the other titles combined.  You could attribute some of the difference to better publicity (being featured in Boing Boing certainly doesn’t hurt). But all of the titles have had a fair chance to get promoted, and other titles, like Riverwatch, have gotten special attention in other blogs.)  I think it’s more likely that the nature of the book, and the terms of the offer, make a big difference in its ability to attract sponsors. Three particular things about this book stand out for me:

  1. The book addresses an ongoing interest in a way that is not readily substitutable.  While oral literature in Africa is not the most popular subject imaginable, a sizable number of scholars and ordinary readers around the world take an interest in African culture and heritage.  For such interested readers, the book occupies a unique niche.  It is, according to its campaign’s description, the book that “single-handedly created the field of ethnography of language”.  Such landmark books can remain valuable reference points even after their fields have advanced well beyond where they were when the book first came out.   Furthermore, the book collects numerous examples of oral literature (and the unglued version will include more such material, in audio as well as textual form); these specific works can be important texts for study that cannot be readily overlooked.  Someone who’s interested generally in horror novels or beginning readers can choose from many different books to fill that need beside the two books that are campaigning in these areas..  But someone who wants to understand African oral literature, and its analysis by English-speaking scholars, would have a hard time passing up this book.
  2. The book is offered with a license that maximally encourages reuse and enhancement.  Three of the other initial books are being offered with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.  This lets people freely read the books, and pass them around as long as they don’t charge for them, but that’s about it; no adaptations, updates, sequels, fan-fiction, or the like.  One other book, Cat and Rat,  offers the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, which does allow adaptation, but puts some restrictions on how version and adaptations of the book can be distributed or reused.  Oral Literature in Africa, though, is offered with a license that’s more liberal than any of the other books.  Its Creative Commons Attribution license allows for virtually any kind of adaptation, enhancement, or distribution, as long as proper credit is given to the original source and author.  The ability to adapt and enhance a work is particularly important for nonfiction.  As I noted last year when discussing the Digital Public Library of America, the useful lifespan of nonfiction works can go way up when they can be updated and adapted to new knowledge and needs.  A license permitting that, and the promised release of additional material under similar terms, make the freeing of Oral Literature in Africa especially desirable.
  3. The book is offered with a realistic goal price. Despite being arguably the most attractive book in the first set based on the criteria above, Oral Literature in Africa was offered with a lower price goal than any of the other books.  It’s not a trivial goal– as of this writing, nearly 2/3 of the funds still need to be raised– but it seems to be well-matched with its demand.  According to Amazon, used copies of this book are being sold starting at just over $20.  At that price level, it will take 375 readers– a reasonable number for an academic title– willing to pay an average of that amount to free the book.  In contrast, the going prices for the other books are quite a bit lower.  Three of the four other books are offered starting at $0.01 plus shipping; the fourth does not appear in Amazon’s used market, but is offered in a Kindle edition for $9.99.   (Even at that price point, it would require more than 5,000 “buyers” to meet its current goal.)  Personally, I’m more likely to support a book liberation campaign if I know my pledge is likely to make a difference, and the campaign is likely to succeed.  Right now, that looks distinctly possible for Oral Literature in Africa, but not for the others.

Mind you, there’s no guarantee that any of these initial books will meet its goal.  Oral Literature in Africa will make it if pledges don’t drop from the level they came in for the first 10 days, but will miss the mark if pledges drop off significantly.  (I pledged $25 to support this book two days ago; since then it’s received less than $100 in additional pledges.  However, this was over a holiday weekend; things may pick up again during the week.) If the campaign, or one or more of the others, does succeed, we’ll have our first baseline for this new book-liberation market.

But one book doesn’t make a market.  The true test of the “ungluing” idea will be to see how many other books come after it.  Will there be enough to make ungluing a significant new source of freely readable and adaptable copyrighted books?   Will there be enough commission revenue from enough campaigns to support enterprises like Gluejar as businesses?  That remains to be seen.  I haven’t yet seen any other books join the initial 5 that Gluejar has offered, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other rightsholders are closely watching these first campaigns, planning to decide based on how they turn out.

From what I’ve seen so far, if a rightsholder has a particularly distinctive, not easily substitutable book, offers licenses or other premiums attractive enough to interest a sizable support base, and is realistic about revenue expectations, they could well enjoy new revenue from books they’ve already written– and let new generations of readers enjoy and build on their work at the same time.  We’ll see how many of them find that a worthwhile bargain.

Why The Online Books Page is black for January 18

As I mentioned in my last post, the US Congress is currently considering two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA),that would make it easy for copyright infringement complaints (whether ultimately justified or not) to wipe entire sites off the Net by various means, with little recourse or due process for site owners.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, these bills, if enacted, threaten censorship of a wide variety of sites that host controversial content or unfiltered public discourse, not just flagrant bootleg sites.   Sites hosting online books, in particular, could be cut off in various ways if they host a book that someone says infringes copyright in some way. (Even the threat of wholesale cutoff could cause them to take the book down, without any sort of judicial hearing.)  Even linking to a site that has content that’s the subject of a complaint could put a site at risk.

Many sites are “going dark” in various ways on the 18th, to raise awareness of these bills and show what it could be like if they became targets of SOPA or PIPA-enabled censorship.  This includes a number of the sites linked to from The Online Books Page.  For example, the Internet Archive, which hosts 2 million volumes, is out of service for 12 hours on the 18th.

The Online Books Page will not go offline, but we will turn many of our pages black for the 18th, as a warning both that some of the links on the site may be out of service, and that the site itself, which links to more than 1.4 million books on thousands of sites around the world, could be at risk if the bills currently under consideration in Congress pass.

My objection to the bills is not an objection to opposing copyright violations.  As the US Constitution recognizes, appropriately bounded copyrights serve a useful purpose in “promoting the progress of science and arts“, and a fair bit of the time I spend on The Online Books Page is devoted towards making sure the online books I curate do in fact comply with applicable copyright law.   Without clear and reasonable boundaries, though, copyright and its enforcement can inhibit rather than promote the progress of knowledge and the arts, by becoming tools of censorship and chilled speech.  I believe the current bills in Congress unfortunately do that.  If you are concerned about them as well, I encourage you to contact members of Congress to make your concerns known.

Public Domain Day 2012: Five things we can do in the US

It’s New Year’s Day again, and in much of the world, this means another year’s worth of works enter the public domain.  That’s a cause for celebration, as Europe and many other countries that have “life+70 years” copyright terms welcome works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jelly Roll Morton, and Elizabeth von Arnim into the public domain.  The Communia Project’s Public Domain Day website focuses on works by these and many other authors that are entering (in many cases, re-entering) the public domain in “life+70 years” countries.  Meanwhie, folks in Canada, New Zealand, and other countries that have held the line at the “life+50 years” terms of the Berne Convention can now freely enjoy the works of people like James Thurber, Ernest Hemingway, and H.D.

There’s not so much excitement about Public Domain Day in the US, where no published works are scheduled to enter the public domain for another 7 years, due to a 20-year copyright extension enacted in 1998.  But Americans don’t have to simply sigh and contemplate what might have been if our copyright terms hadn’t been extended.  The new year still provides a number of important opportunities for Americans to improve access to the public domain.

1. Find and free newly public domain unpublished works

Some works are going into the public domain in the US today: works never published prior to 2003 (or copyrighted under US law prior to 1978) by authors who died in 1941– the same authors whose published works go into the public domain in Europe today.

But who would care about such obscure works? one might ask.  Well, if you’re at all interested in understanding the dense, allusion-laden fiction of Joyce, or the psychology of Woolf, or the jurisprudential thinking of Louis Brandeis, or the inner lives of any of the rest of the “class of 1941”, having the right to freely access, publish, and build on their unpublished works can be crucial.

Up until now, for instance, scholars studying James Joyce have often been frustrated by sharp restrictions and legal threats made by the administrator of Joyce’s literary estate.  In 2008, Rebecca Ganz characterized the administrator thus: “[His] primary purpose is to quell any scholarship that he finds distasteful or an invasion of his family’s privacy. He has a history of harassing authors and artists until they buckle under the strain of trying to obtain legal rights to quote from the late author’s writings.”  Scholars wishing to invoke Joyce’s unpublished works in their work have either had to undertake multi-year legal battles, or cut back on the lines of inquiry they might otherwise pursue.

American libraries and archives have many illuminating papers by authors who died in 1941– even non-US authors like Joyce and Woolf.  US digitizers, librarians, and archivists can open up and publicize these works.   In some cases, we’re uniquely positioned to do so, since their unpublished works may still be under copyright in some other countries.

2. Increase worldwide availability of public domain works

Many of the millions of digitized books on the Internet are hosted in the US, in large-scale repositories like Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive.  Many of these services give limited access to non-US readers or materials.  Google and HathiTrust, for instance, limit non-US access by default to books published as long as 140 years ago, to avoid falling afoul of “life+70 years” copyright terms abroad.  JSTOR likewise limits access to non-US journal volumes published in 1870 or later.

With another year’s worth of copyrights expiring in “life+70 years” countries, it should be safe for these US-based services to also open up worldwide access to another year’s worth of works, further freeing up the public domain.  HathiTrust is also willing to manually review copyrights on specific books to open up access.  If you come across any books in HathiTrust solely by authors who died in 1941 (or before) that are currently labeled only as “public domain in the United States”, you can request that they review it for opening up access worldwide.  Just use the “Feedback” button at the bottom of the book’s HathiTrust page, or the suggestion form on my Online Books Page; and make sure you ask specifically for non-US access.

3. Restore access to obscure copyrighted works from 1936 (and earlier)

After libraries and archives expressed concerns about the fate of obscure works under longer copyright terms, Congress included a special exemption in their 1998 copyright tem extension.  The exemption, codified as section 108(h) of the copyright law, states that “during the last 20 years of any term of copyright of a published work, a library or archives, including a nonprofit educational institution that functions as such, may reproduce, distribute, display, or perform in facsimile or digital form a copy or phonorecord of such work, or portions thereof, for purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research”, under certain conditions.  In particular, if the institution finds, after a reasonable investigation, that such a work is not “subject to normal commercial exploitation” (such as by being in print) and cannot “be obtained at a reasonable price”, and no rightsholder has filed a claim otherwise, the work qualifies for this special exemption.  As of this year’s Public Domain Day, qualifying publications from 1936 join what is now 14 years of works in this category.

So far, I have found very little digitized content online where this exemption is explicitly invoked.  (There are advantages to explicitly doing so, both because it helps clarify the right to use the material, and helps prevent inadvertent unauthorized propagation of the works, such as the commercial reprints of digitized books that are now common on many large bookselling sites.)  Yet many of the works in HathiTrust’s (currently suspended) orphan works initiative, and in the Internet Archive’s lending library, and more besides, could well qualify for this treatment– and unlike orphan works, where legislation has yet to be passed, the exemption for these materials is already explicitly authorized by statute.

Providing online access for these works is not without controversy.  A 2002 article by lawyer Mary Minow details some of the potential possibilities and risks.   While she concludes that libraries can put such works on the Web, the recent Author’s Guild complaint in its lawsuit against HathiTrust includes some push-back against this idea. But as the public domain in the US recedes further into history, and digital library projects increasingly look for ways to make our cultural heritage available online, American libraries would do well to proactively establish and exercise these rights for older works now languishing in obscurity.

4. Strengthen and sustain coalitions for reasonable copyright limits

The curtailment of the public domain is just one aspect of the overreach of copyright law in the US and elsewhere.  Right now, Congress is considering two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), whose enforcement provisions threaten to disrupt the core structures of the Internet and enable far-reaching censorship, in the name of stopping piracy.  Supporters of these bills hoped to have them passed by Christmas, but opposition from both “left” and “right” sides of the political spectrum has slowed the process down, caused some companies to withdraw support, and led to the proposal of less harmful alternatives for fighting piracy.

It’s still quite possible that SOPA and PIPA will pass, though.   Public Domain Day provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect on some of the good reasons for limiting the power and scope of copyright enforcement, and to redouble efforts to keep those limits reasonable.  Moreover, a coalition that can stop SOPA and PIPA can also work to prevent further extensions of copyright terms.  This can ensure that Americans will have more to celebrate in Public Domain Days to come– especially starting in 2019, when the remaining 1923 copyrights should finally expire in the US.

5. Give copyrights of your own to the public domain

Of course, those wishing to maximize public access and use of their works don’t have to wait for their copyrights to expire on their own.  They can dedicate them to the public domain any time they want.  Public Domain Day is a particularly auspicious time to make such gifts, no matter what country you’re in.  And with tools like the CC0 declaration, it’s easier than ever to do so.

A few years ago, I started an annual personal tradition of reviewing copyrights to works I’d created more than 14 years ago (the original initial term of copyright enacted by the founders of the US, and also approximately the ideal copyright term given in a recent economic analysis) and dedicating works to the public domain that I didn’t feel needed further copyright.  Accordingly, today I dedicate all the work of my creation that I published in 1997, and for which I still control rights, to the public domain.  For me, this consists primarily of websites like The Online Books Page as of that year, and other online writings.  But others have dedicated more high-profile material to the public domain after the same term.   And I’d be very happy to hear from others who are making similar dedications today (whether or not it’s after 14 years).

So, happy Public Domain Day to everyone in the US and elsewhere!  We all have things to celebrate, and things we can do, in the name of the public domain.

My mother’s orphan

Before my mother was pregnant with me, she was working on a book.

The book had begun its gestation at least a year before. She had been teaching math in Massachusetts, and was involved with the Madison Project, one of the initiatives that arose from the “new math” movement of the 1960s.  What excited her, and what I caught from her not long after I was born, was the sense of discovery and play that was encouraged in the Madison teaching style.  The primary focus wasn’t so much on imparting and drilling facts and rules, or on mundane applications, but on finding patterns, solving puzzles, and figuring out the secrets of numbers and geometry and the other mathematical constructs that underlie our world. Some project participants planned a series of books that would help bring out this sense of discovery and exploration in math classes.

Two small children in the house may have delayed my mother’s ambitions, but we didn’t stop her.  When I was in kindergarten, the piles of papers in my parents’ bedroom went away, and my mother proudly showed me her new book.  The book, Discoveries in Essential Mathematics, was co-written with Ramon Steinen, and published by Charles E. Merrill. Though the textbook was written for middle schoolers, I remember reading through the book after my mother showed it to me, solving the simpler problems, and smiling when I saw my name or my sister’s in an example.

She got small royalty checks for a few years, but the book was out of print by the late 1970s, never reaching a second edition.  We kept some copies in our basement, but I didn’t know of any library that held it.  When I visited the Library of Congress as a middle schooler, wrongly convinced that they had every book ever published, I remember my disappointment when I couldn’t find Mom’s book in their card catalog.

My mother eventually retired from teaching, and the enthusiasm and talent I’d gotten from Mom for math shifted into computing, and then into digital libraries.  And when my kids reached school age, I decided to try putting her book online.  In an era of large classes, detailed state standards, and high-stakes standardized tests, it might not be a viable standard textbook any more, but I think it’s still great for curious kids who show an interest in math.

Mom thought that was a great idea.  But she didn’t know if she could grant permission on her own.  Although long out of print, the book’s copyright had automatically renewed in 2000 under US copyright law, and she wasn’t sure if she had to get the consent of her publisher or co-author before she could give me the go-ahead. She didn’t know how to reach her co-author, and her old imprint was long gone.  Even its acquirer had itself been acquired by a large conglomerate some time ago.  So I let the idea drop, thinking I’d come back to it later when I had a little time to research the copyright.

But not long after, she started a long slide into dementia, and was soon in no position to give permission to anyone.  If her book had been practically an “orphan work” before, due to uncertainty over rights, it was even more so now.  There was no trouble locating the author; but no way of getting valid permission from someone definitely known to hold the rights.

Mom died this past winter, four years after my Dad had reluctantly moved her into the nursing home for good, and four weeks after he’d made his usual daily visit, gone back home, and had a fatal heart attack.  After we paid the last of the bills, and threw out the contents of the basement (where a burst pipe ruined all the books, papers, and other things they kept down there), what remained of what they had would now go to me and my siblings.

I still had a copy at home of the teacher’s edition of Mom’s book that she had once given to Grandma.  And between my mother’s funeral and the burst pipe, I’d taken a student edition out of their basement for my kids to read.  But any faint hope of finding publishing contracts or rights assignment documents was obliterated after the pipe burst.  The basic questions were: had Mom signed her rights to the book away, as many academic authors do? If so, had she gotten them back at some point?  Or had she never had the rights in the first place, as sometimes happens with textbook authors under “work for hire” contracts?

The copyright page of the book, and the record in the 1972 Catalog of Copyright Entries, show the publisher as the copyright claimant, so I couldn’t assume she had the rights.   But I also doubted whether I could get a clear answer, or reasonable licensing terms, from the company that had eventually acquired the assets of Mom’s original publisher.

I eventually found what I needed to know on a trip to Washington, DC.  While attending a meeting on digital format registries, I realized that I was in the same building as the Copyright Office.   So after the meeting, I got a reader’s card, went upstairs, and consulted the librarians there.  We confirmed that, under the automatic renewal laws of the time, the copyright to Mom’s book would have reverted in 2000 to whoever had been declared the “author” in the book in the original registration record.   Moreover, in the absence of any contrary arrangement, any co-owner of a copyright can authorize publication, as long as they split any proceeds with the other copyright owners.

Since I was planning just to put the book online for free, the only question remaining was: who was listed as the author on the original registration: the publisher who claimed the copyright, or my mother and Dr. Steinen?  It’s not clear from the Catalog of Copyright Entries, but the original registration certificate would state it.  And the one copy known to exist of that certificate was in the archives of the Copyright Office where I was sitting.

Twenty minutes later, I had the certificate in front of me.  The name on the “claimant” line was indeed the publisher’s, but the names on the “author” line were Steinen and Ockerbloom.  My mother’s orphan was mine to claim.

There are a lot more books out there like hers.  Since I added records for Hathi Trust‘s public domain books to The Online Books Page, I’ve gotten requests to curate hundreds of out of print, largely forgotten books that are still meaningful to readers online.  Many of the people who opt to leave contact information  live in places where  books tend to be hard to get or pay for. Many others, judging from their names, seem to be related to the authors of the books they suggest. These readers have found the books after Hathi, or Google, or the Internet Archive, has resurfaced them online, and the readers want these books to live on.  If there were an easy, inexpensive, uncontroversially legal way to also bring back books that are still in copyright, but no longer commercially exploited, I’m sure I could fulfill a lot of requests for those books too.

For now, though, I’ll bring back the one orphan book I’ve been given. And I thank my mother for writing it, and the other women and men who have poured so much of their energy and teaching into their books, and the librarians of all kinds who help ensure those books stay accessible to readers who value them.  I’ll try my best to keep your legacies alive.