Friday, August 7, 2009

Scholarly communications and copyright

This summer at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention I attended a session given by a lawyer on the topic of copyright law and what Google is doing to scan library books. I just want to give some of my opinions.

First -- I once had a dream that I would have one union index that would list all the books that I own. I could look one place and find a subject and then know which book to open. The dream partially comes true when I use Google Scholar or Google Books to locate texts. I get a special delight when I seen a quote from a book or periodical and then I can go to the shelf and get the item.

When researchers look for intellectual material they want to be able to find materials quickly. Databases and scanned books help make the search and reading materials easier. Students, scholars and the general public depend on open and easy access to books and other intellectual content.

Second -- authors and creators have a right to be compensated for their creativity and work. In commercial ventures the compensation comes from sales. In academia the compensation comes from salaries paid by universities, grants, or institutional budgets. Sometimes publications charge an author for publishing their work.

It is obvious from the provisions of the copyright law that the lawmakers did not consider the needs of libraries, librarians, students and scholars. The law provides for fair use, but it does not provide for an accurate or convenient way of knowing who owns the copyright. The copyright period is life of the creator plus 70 years, yet there is no easy way to check dates of death. I have an alternative length of copyright.

  1. Copyright is automatic as in the current provision from the date of creation. To claim this protection the item must be dated. Any item not registered would be placed in public domain after 25 years.
  2. Copyright period under the automatic provision is for a period of 25 years. To obtain a longer period the item must be registered with the Copyright Office. When registering the owner may request 56 years, lifetime of the author plus 50, or indicate when the item will pass into public domain.
  3. Corporate owners of copyright protected materials must register for protection if they want more than 25 years of protection. The copyright may be renewed twice for a total of 75 years of protection. After that if the item is still commercially viable and the owner wanted to receive copyright protection they would need a special extension. After 100 years all items would automatically be placed in the public domain.
  4. Any item not registered would be placed in public domain after 25 years.
Copyright protection is a separate issue from ownership of intellectual property. Intellectual property is owned forever. That means one can not take the work of someone else and claim it for your own. If a publisher wants to reprint a book in the public domain, they do not have to pay royalties, but they may not claim the work is by another writer. Mark Twain owns Tom Sawyer forever.

If the items are registered with the Copyright Office that would indicate that the creator cared about protection. With registration Google, a library, or any member of the public could check on the copyright status. Once the owner is known it will be easier to get permission for reprinting or use in another manifestation of the work. Not registering would be prima faca evidence that the owner does not intend to claim protection of the copyright laws.

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