Internet Archives Liberates Old Books Using Never Used Before Provision Of Copyright Law

from the library-public-domain dept

Section 108 of copyright law doesn't get very much attention (though, we did just mention it in regards to an archive of Howard Stern/Donald Trump interviews). It's the part of the law that grants some fairly narrow exceptions to copyright for libraries and archives. In short, it was a recognition that libraries and archives are good and important things, and copyright law under the 1976 Copyright Act would basically make them illegal. Rather than fixing the fact that copyright law was too broad, Section 108 simply carved out a few important exceptions. Many of those exceptions are, unfortunately, under attack from all the usual sources.

However Section 108 is important to protect until we fix wider problems with copyright law. Of course, some parts of 108 have rarely, if ever, been tested. The Internet Archive is looking to fix that. It just announced that it is making a bunch of books published between 1923 and 1941 available on the Archive. As you may know from the handy dandy public domain term chart at Cornell, thanks to the 1976 Copyright Act (and various extensions) tons of works that should have been in the public domain long before now have been locked up and unavailable. The key date is 1923. Works before that are clearly in the public domain. After that, it gets... fuzzy.

But, Section 108(h) has a neat little exception for libraries and archives:

(1) For purposes of this section, 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, if such library or archives has first determined, on the basis of a reasonable investigation, that none of the conditions set forth in subparagraphs (A), (B), and (C) of paragraph (2) apply.

(2) No reproduction, distribution, display, or performance is authorized under this subsection if—

(A) the work is subject to normal commercial exploitation;
(B) a copy or phonorecord of the work can be obtained at a reasonable price; or
(C) the copyright owner or its agent provides notice pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Register of Copyrights that either of the conditions set forth in subparagraphs (A) and (B) applies.

And thus, the Internet Archive believes it's free to make a bunch of out of print books available:

The Internet Archive is now leveraging a little known, and perhaps never used, provision of US copyright law, Section 108h, which allows libraries to scan and make available materials published 1923 to 1941 if they are not being actively sold. Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a copyright scholar at Tulane University calls this “Library Public Domain.”  She and her students helped bring the first scanned books of this era available online in a collection named for the author of the bill making this necessary: The Sonny Bono Memorial Collection. Thousands more books will be added in the near future as we automate. We hope this will encourage libraries that have been reticent to scan beyond 1923 to start mass scanning their books and other works, at least up to 1942.

As the Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle notes, it's unfortunate and disappointing that it even needs to make use of this clause, because copyright was never supposed to last this long in the first place. The idea that stuff published in 1941 is still under copyright is completely insane.

If the Founding Fathers had their way, almost all works from the 20th century would be public domain by now (14-year copyright term, renewable once if you took extra actions).

Some corporations saw adding works to the public domain to be a problem, and when Sonny Bono got elected to the House of Representatives, representing part of Los Angeles, he helped push through a law extending copyright’s duration another 20 years to keep things locked-up back to 1923.  This has been called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to one of the motivators behind the law, but it was also a result of Europe extending copyright terms an additional twenty years first. If not for this law, works from 1923 and beyond would have been in the public domain decades ago.

Still, the law is the law... and, part of it includes Section 108(h). The Archive has, amusingly, named the collection the Sonny Bono Memorial Collection:

Today we announce the “Sonny Bono Memorial Collection” containing the first books to be liberated. Anyone can download, read, and enjoy these works that have been long out of print. We will add another 10,000 books and other works in the near future. “Working with the Internet Archive has allowed us to do the work to make this part of the law usable,” reflected Professor Townsend Gard. “Hopefully, this will be the first of many “Last Twenty” Collections around the country.”

Of course, there's more to this as well -- part of the goal is to encourage other libraries and archives to do the same.

For many years we've pointed to the research of Paul Heald, who has demonstrated the massive hole in access to important cultural works due to copyright. Specifically, he's found while public domain books have a big market, publishers who hold copyright only keep very recent books on the market. And that creates a massive culture gap in our history:

Perhaps the Sonny Bono Memorial Collection will help fill in just a small bit on the left hand side of that tragic cultural gorge.

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Filed Under: 108h, archives, copyright, librarian's public domain, out of print books, public domain
Companies: internet archive


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2017 @ 9:04pm

    "But," bristled MyNameHere, "How would people ever pay unknown authors for orphaned works if Internet pirates make the books available for free? You can't compete with free!"

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