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  Except for unpublished works by authors who died in 1942, no copyrights expire in the US today.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.

Persistence

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.

Building on a full complement of copyright records

Thanks to recent efforts of the US Copyright Office, we now have a complete digitization of summary copyright registration and renewal records back to the late 19th century.  As Mike Burke and others at the Copyright Office have been reporting on their blog, Copyright Matters: Digitization and Public Access, the Copyright Office has now digitized nearly every volume of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, and its predecessor publication, the Catalogue of Title Entries of Books and Other Articles, to the start of that serial in 1891.  Combined with the current online Copyright Catalog database, and some independent scans that fill in gaps in the Copyright Office set, records for every copyright registration and renewal still in force in the US can now be found online, free of charge.

This is a great benefit for people wanting to make better use of copyrighted works and the public domain.  With the information now online, we can quickly verify copyright and public domain status for lots of works, and also get useful leads on current owners of copyrights, in ways that were not possible when the only copies of the Catalog were in closed reserve at certain federal depository libraries.  Various people in the Copyright Office  have been hoping for a while to get approval and funding for this digitization, and I’m very thankful for their persistence in seeing the work through.

Not all the work is done, though.  Although the Catalog is now online, its records are not as easy to search, navigate through, and interpret as they could be.  There’s no one-stop search box, for instance, that will reliably bring you to any copyright record with your query terms, regardless of date or type of record.  And the Copyright Office also has more information about its copyright registrations– some of it on catalog cards, and more of it on original registration certificates like the one I found when researching the status of my mother’s book— that could be useful to people researching copyright status and looking for rightsholders.

For now, the Copyright Office is scanning the cards used to look up volumes of registration certificates, and that are also the basis of the Catalog of Copyright Entries printed volumes.  From my (limited) experience with these cards, they don’t seem to add much information to what’s in the printed Catalog, but it’s easier to automatically create a searchable, structured database of copyright records from the cards, with their fairly regular typefaces and formats, than it would be to create one from the Catalog scans.  According to their latest blog post, the Copyright Office is now creating digital images of the relevant cards, and hope to be done by the end of Fiscal Year 2014, or a little over 26 months from now.  They’re also hoping to work with various partners– including “crowdsourcing” partnerships– to reliably convert the information on the cards into machine-readable form.

There are also lots of ways to make the existing online records more useful.   On my own copyright records site, for instance, I’ve now made a comprehensive index to all the Catalog volumes, and created a table to make it easier to look up records in digitized Catalog volumes, based on the year and type of copyright registration.  I’m still working on further refinements, and would be very happy to hear suggestions.  (I’ve also been unable to find one 12-month stretch of records for copyrights from 1895 and 1896.  Fortunately, all the copyrights from those years have long since expired, but I’d still be grateful to anyone who can help me fill this last gap.)

At the same time, I’ve been using the comprehensive record set to help me research and publicize copyright status for listings on The Online Books Page.  For instance, if I’m listing public domain issues of a journal, magazine, or other serial, I’ll also look to see whether additional issues might also be in the public domain if their copyrights were not renewed.  Then I’ll place a note about this on my cover page for the serial, if applicable.

As for the Copyright Office, I’m hoping that they can soon start digitizing their volumes of registration certificates, which contain a lot of useful additional information about copyrights and copyright holders, and which no one else has.  Digitizing all of them wouldn’t be cheap– there are a lot of pages potentially to digitize, usually two for each registration.  But perhaps they could start digitizing incrementally, either on a prioritized systematic basis (e.g., starting with the most recent volumes), or on a demand-based basis (e.g., digitizing when someone wants to obtain a copy of one of a volume’s certificates).

These are only a few of the things that could be done with the records now online, by people anywhere with the suitable motivation.  I’d love to hear what others are doing or thinking of doing.

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 Unglue.it 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 Unglue.it 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 Unglue.it 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.