Burning the library in slow motion: how copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap of history

Jamie "Public Domain" Boyle sez, "When Ray Bradbury's 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451 was published, it was scheduled to enter the public domain this month -- January 1, 2010. But then we changed the law. And Bradbury's firemen look like pikers compared to the cultural conflagration that ensued. The works may not be physically destroyed -- although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access. Bradbury's firemen at least set fire to their own culture out of deep ideological commitment, vile though it may have been. We have set fire to our cultural record for no reason."

Remember folks, thanks to 11 copyright term extensions in the past 40-some years, more than 98% of all works in copyright are "orphaned" -- still in copyright, but no one knows to whom they belong.

But the legal changes introduced in the years after Fahrenheit 451 did more than just extend terms. Congress eliminated the benign practice of the renewal requirement (which had guaranteed that 85% of works and 93% of books entered the public domain after 28 years because the authors and publishers simply didn't want or need a second copyright term.) And copyright, which had been an opt-in system (you had to comply with some very minor formalities to get a copyright) became an opt out system (you got a copyright automatically when you "fixed" the work in material form, whether you wanted it or not.) Suddenly the entire world of informal and non commercial culture -- from home movies that provide a wonderful lens into the private life of an era, to essays, posters, locally produced teaching materials -- was swept into copyright. And kept there for the life of the author plus 70 years. The effects were culturally catastrophic. Copyright went from covering very little culture, and only covering it for a 28 year period during which it was commercially available, to covering all of culture, regardless of whether it was available -- often for over a century. Unlike Fahrenheit 451, the vast majority of the culture swept into this 20th century black hole was not commercially available and, in most cases, the authors are unknown. The works are locked up -- with no benefit to anyone -- and no one has the key that would unlock them. We have cut ourselves off from our own culture, left it to molder -- and in the case of nitrate film, literally disintegrate -- with no benefit to anyone. The works may not be physically destroyed -- although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access.
Fahrenheit 451... Book burning as done by lawyers (Thanks, Jamie!)

(Image: Burned Book a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike image from Paraflyer's photostream) (Thanks, Jamie!)


  1. I don’t think this is a very effective advertisement. Sorry, I don’t know the proper method of getting attention for little gaffes here.

    But that black font on gray is just not working for the front page :P

    1. Looks grey on grey to me, but either way it remains an eye sore. Also I maybe missing the point of this advertisement, I’m not seeing anything for sale, just an article on copyright.

  2. Can’t we start a public movement? Let’s all copy and share Fahrenheit 451 and make it available to anyone for free.

    1. Like it or not, at least someone is benefiting from “Fahrenheit 451″‘s copyright. (Seeing as how the author is still alive it’s hard for me to get too upset about him continuing to collect royalties.) Like the post says, the worst part is that 98% of copyrights are to the detriment of our culture and the benefit of no one.

  3. @ #5 Heh _nb I know you’re being funny. But perhaps we should all think about making personal copies of all the books we own. Maybe we can save some of these works if we digitize (but don’t publish) everything privately. Then make the works publicly available when it becomes legal.

    Not sure how to organize such a massive undertaking. I’d hope the Library of Congress would be doing something like this. But if the government won’t I think it is our responsibility.

    Someone should start a nice bittorrent-like client hooked up to some kind of decentralized copyright database. Once a title appears in the database, the file(s) become public and sharing starts. The only trick is to figure out how to trust the database ;-)

    And we’ll also need book scanners. Lots and lots of book scanners. Maybe we’ll see some easy to build open hardware solutions pop up.

    1. dfletcher: On BB last year: Homebrew DIY book scanner for $300

      “over three days, and for about $300, he lashed together two lights, two Canon Powershot A590 cameras, a few pieces of acrylic and some chunks of wood to create a book scanner that’s fast enough to scan a 400-page book in about 20 minutes.”

      Under Australian copyright laws, copyright in literary works of authors, who died before 1955, has expired. For this reason Adelaide Uni has a bunch of free ebooks hosted on their site: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/

      Unlike the Beebs friggin iplayer, I don’t believe they restrict access to IPs from outside Australia – so go nuts!

      Here is my solution: do what dtfletcher suggested, set it up in Australia and give a big finger when/if international lawyers come knocking. I’m sure the clever folk at EFF could figure out a way to demonstrate in court how it is against basic human rights for some information to be legal only for Aussies to download.

      If anyone is serious about doing this and has $$$ to back it I would quit my job to set it up. This article does an excellent job of explaining how insane it is that we, the consumer, the very people who make things profitable, have been bent over backwards and violated over this issue in the last century.

      1. Australia changed their copyright laws due to US pressure a couple years ago, so they won’t have any new public domain books until 2027. Canada is still a lifetime+50 country, so you’re better off setting it up there until Canada succumbs to the greedy American copyright interests. Canada already an organization to scan and proofread public domain works in the life+50 term, http://www.pgdpcanada.net/. Unless you’re only interested in hosting images, the biggest bottleneck is finding people willing to clean up the OCR’d text. Compare the OCR text result of a book at Google Books and compare it to recent works at Project Gutenberg, and you’ll see what I mean.

    1. Or, first in your group work on creating a page turning mechanism that will work in tandem with the existing book scanner, so that you don’t have to flip every page by hand. Then implement it and open source the designs so we can all just drop a book in and go back to life/internet/doing the dishes.

  4. I agree that it is a shame should orphaned works be stuck in copyright, but most of America does have access to a public library and that public library is free. Without doing the proper research, I am confident in stating that more people have access to libraries than the net so we need to stop believing that posting everything on the web is the fastest way to bridging the socioeconomic knowledge gap. If you really want to make books available to more people, donate to your library.

    1. most of America does have access to a public library and that public library is free

      #11 – Does that public library also have every book on every subject? Ideally, shouldn’t a library have every book possible?

      You are missing the point. Books are objects bound by the laws of nature to disintegrate unless properly taken care of. Data is not. The author is suggesting we put books online, but considering libraries were one of the first places to embrace the internet – and internet use at the library is free, I’d say you should think harder before posting next time.

      1. Err, that’s kind of true, but compared to the amount of capital, labor, knowledge, etc. needed to keep the ‘Toobz up and running for even an hour, printed books (especially those printed with good paper) are a superb investment precisely for reasons of longterm storage and retrieval. They’re one-off products, and while they need a large outlay of capital and labor at first, they don’t need much more than proper storage thereafter to last for hundreds of years. The fact that we’re still digging papyri out of the desert, but I need the Wayback Machine to see a cached page from just a few years ago, is illustrative. Both print and digital media have positives and negatives from the point of view of durability, storage, etc.

      2. I think he has a point. I think it is a valid question to ask whether or not voiding copyright is the proper way to preserve cultural knowledge…a role that has traditionally been that of the library since ancient Alexandria. I think it is also valid to question the author’s assertion that a “vast majority” of citizens have no access to “great” libraries.

        Don’t get me wrong — I think for short to mid-term timescales, lifting copyright will certainly help spread and preserve knowledge. But I *do* question why the conversation isn’t “how do we make sure all works are preserved” rather than “why isn’t work “X” in the public domain?”. I admit, though, that I would love to hear from someone who know more about this than me! :)

  5. “But perhaps we should all think about making personal copies of all the books we own. Maybe we can save some of these works if we digitize (but don’t publish) everything privately. Then make the works publicly available when it becomes legal.”

    Wow…has anyone read ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’? Life is imitating dystopian art. :(

  6. “The works are locked up — with no benefit to anyone — ”
    But hey – the owners of other more recent and future copyrights do get a benefit: A huge reduction in competition (for your eyeballs) from all those earlier works whose continued re-consumption would otherwise tend to satisfy our needs for free.

  7. Thank goodness for creative commons! I can die knowing that if I don’t get recognized for my work during my life, it will remain post humously in someone’s niche interest.

    I don’t know about digitizing everything, but having the option to reprint or reproduce works on to a more archival medium would be nice. Especially considering most of the copyrighted material being referred to is not being reproduced because it’s not economically viable to do so.

  8. I feel a long post coming on :)

    Perhaps there should be a Digital Public Library?

    Libraries have for millenia provided access to otherwise “locked-up” works (often because of ‘costs’ single individuals could not hope to pay) while attempting to “cover all of culture”.

    One cost was scarcity, which we may be close to conquering with digital distribution, but if this barrier is re-born in the guise of extended copyright and proprietary (Betamax anyone?) formats we are going to be moving towards a new dark age of public access to our cultural record.

    All the digital business models seem to have left out the public good of a public library in their plans. Not surprising considering the “free” access promoted there and easy digital reproduction would scare off most publishers!

    Some products, such as Overdrive, allow libraries to ‘lend’ (heavily DRM’ed) digital works, but a concern is that these proprietary formats can not be said to be truly ‘accessible’ over the longer periods of time that Libraries work with.
    e.g. The Bibliotheque de Paris is over c.700 years old and still operating for the public. Non-lending Libraries have had long periods of operation – The Great Library of Alexandria c.800 years – The Library of Constantinople c.1000 years.

    The main funding model of current Public Libraries is usually through communities raising local taxation and buying works for the use of the people of their city or town (yes – that free book… you actually own it in “common”).

    There is also a network of agreements between Libraries across the world to freely lend works unavailable in one library to another – ranging from informal arrangements to highly structured tracking processes. A lot of the memes surrounding information distribution that we saw emerge in the internet have their corollary in the pre-net Library world (after all Librarians were networking their catalogues in the ’60s independent of D.A.R.P.A.)

    The non-local archiving of digital works acessible through the internet really should be a boon to all communities possessing a Library, but the advent of digitisation has added the costs of incompatible formats with restrictive DRM and higher subscription/purchase charges.

    Anyone got any ideas on how ‘free’ public access to our cultural works can be maintained? How can a digital copy purchased for the Library be differentiated from one purchased by an individual?… and should it?

    Burning the Library indeed…

  9. I have two things two say, the first will be flippant, but the second is deadly serious.

    I can see the Public Service Announcements now. Kids… every time you pirate that dvd or Twi-novel it just scares the big corporations in the only emotional context they own. Please don’t pirate, think of the relevant but priceless data!!!

    The second… I went to school as a scholar. I’m not an egghead, or stuffy, or permanently an ass. I studied Anthropology, Psychology, Literature, Languages… I say this not because of the… hey, look at the big brain on Josh… but because that method of study, hours in libraries.. books, papers, monographs, lithographs, irrelevant texts of a schoolmarm during the Egyptian Napoleonic Campaign, actually matter to those disciplines.
    It is what I love. It is idea.
    Yeah, I’m about qualified to make a good mocha now. But I still do research for my eventual Phd. (Darwin willing I should get funding) and these little books are falling to pieces. They’re gone. Some are here, some there. Two copies in Cincinnati and one in reserve in Washington, you got me.
    This law.
    Please let me enforce on you the importance of the digitization of our literature. Especially the ones no one cares about. The title of this entry moved me to tears. This is a slow bonfire. And the state is preventing the individual who has vested interest in the data from saving it.
    It may not be practical to optically do it. But an audio adapter for your ipod is not that expensive.

  10. maybe this is naive of me, but if a book is orphaned, if you were to distribute copies of it (assuming you can find one to copy) who would try to sue you about it?

    1. @uricacid: one problem with what are considered orphan works is that a works owner can remain quiet about their ownership until the work is used, or can be sold after its use, or for that matter make a false claim of ownership and then lay claim to it. (sounds like a orphans in a Victorian novel or a Broadway show.) If the work seems like it is free for use until it is distributed enough to attract someone to claim, then it isn’t free. It potentially costs up to a treble damages award.

    2. who would try to sue you about it?

      Anyone who can prove they have more of an ownership over the original than you. Distant relative, fellow countrymen, publisher. Anyone. People are greedy.

      Anyway this whole discussion is just pointless if you ask me. Basically every computer on the planet already has material on it which infringes copyright. Products which can be used for the precise purpose of capture and distribution of copyright protected content are popular and widespread on the retail market (PVRs, dvd/blu-ray recorders).

      These devices can already create content and share it without even using the internet, so the concept of stopping piracy by keeping things off the net is just stupid. Lawyers and rightsholders can jump up and down angrily as much as they want, but the truth remains that people are making hundreds of thousands of copies of IP protected works every day.

      Most of these digital copies will never see the light of day, but nontheless they exist and can be copied or archived easily if required. There is no way you could prosecute (in terms of volume of numbers) or even track such copies, so I don’t know why they think they can. Wasted time & effort to cause no change in public behaviour (except pissing off the people who actually paid for their copy).

      Authors need to get paid for their work, but I concur with the suggestion that works should be protected no longer than the 20-ish years engineering patents get.

  11. Our library has the most complete copies of our county paper, including the offices of the newspaper itself. Our paper copies are fragile, the microfilm is decaying, and the readers themselves are dying slowly but surely. I am attempting to get permission to digitize the paper and save it electronically, and maybe (hopefully!) extend the project to the rest of our state’s main papers. One disaster at our branch, and we lose over 100 years of local news. At least if we have it stored digitally, we can easily make multiple backups, and store them in several places.

  12. Maybe we need something akin to Wikileaks, but for orphaned copyrighted works. Base the servers in a safe(r) country, run the site on donated money and etc., allow free public access. What say?

  13. At some level, people blaming the U.S. for the currently excessively long copyright term are wrong. The very IDEA of a copyright term of Life +50 or +70 is European. And the U.S. has changed its laws to join the Berne treaty. Conceptualy, we’ve gone from the American idea that copyright is a monopoly granted by the government to encourage the creation of works to the idea that it is a “natural right.”

    The balance of rights between the owners of the copyright, and the owners of copies has shifted DRAMATICLY. The minimal requirements that the US required before the 1976 copyright made the job of determining what was copyrighted and who owned MUCH easier. The combination of fixed terms, registration, and notice meant that a reader could quickly determine if the copyright had expired, and if not, they had at least some chance of determining who owned it.

  14. What really puzzles me, (and as an author, Cory, perhaps you can answer this) is what happens to relatively recent books that are now out of print but where the copyright is tied up in author-agent-publisher-distributor agreements. There’s a large body of work from the cyberpunk era of SciFi that is now in this state. You can’t buy new copies, the work is out of print, remaindered and pulped but copyright and those agreements are still very much in force. Effectively the publisher is using copyright to prevent those words and thoughts from being available. To show how absurd this is, take Bruce Sterling’s “Islands in the Net” or a little further back, John Brunner’s “The sheep look up”. These are not particularly obscure, niche titles so why can’t I buy them? Perhaps what’s needed here is for print on demand to become mainstream and then a concerted effort to digitise and make available the content for that. Or maybe everyone is waiting for eBooks to mature and become actually usable.

    1. You can get both books at Amazon.com. Though for ISLANDS IN THE NET, you have to choose between new (never has been opened) for $221.56 (!!!) or used for $.01 (plus $3.99 shipping & handling.) I think I’d go for used, myself.

  15. While I’m all for authors getting paid, there needs to be limits on copyright. It sounds reasonable to me that an author should get rights to his/her works for their lifetime (be it 25 years or 100), beyond that copyright holders should have to re-apply for copyright privilege every few years (maybe every 5 years). So if the great grand kids of some author want to keep up with the copyright fine, so be it; but if they lapse or don’t care about great-grand dads books, then those should be open to the public. Maybe have a defined period, say 5 years, from when the copyright hold lapses (or his copyright ends) for the copyright to be renewed or acquired by someone else, after which it becomes public domain.

  16. The right for the author to choose the conditions of publishing and copying should be protected (it is his/her property after all). But when the author dies, others should not be able to profit off of the authors work for 70 years. Obviously, publishers wouldn’t want to invest their money into a publication that might become public domain in a month, so there should be a period after the authors death that the copyright is still protected (for the security of the author, not the publisher). I think a reasonable solution is that for the first 25 years since publication, the copyright is protected regardless of if the author is still alive or not, and then it keeps on being protected until the author dies.

  17. “Remember folks, thanks to 11 copyright term extensions in the past 40-some years, more than 98% of all works in copyright are “orphaned” — still in copyright, but no one knows to whom they belong.”

    “98%”? Really? Can anyone document this allegation, or is it just a false statistic invented to shore up the arguement? If anyone can show that this claim is true I wish you would; otherwise it just looks like hysteria.

    1. Refer to this article by Brian Lavoie and Lorcan Dempsey
      “an orphan work is any work under copyright where the rights holder cannot be identified or located.” thus any book in copyright could be an orphaned work — but only 82% of the US published books are potentially in copyright and presumably a significantly smaller percentage of those are orphaned. (You can’t know if a book is an orphan until you do the work to try to identify and locate the rights holder.) That smaller proportion still could amount to a million or more books, but the 98% figure strikes me as a gross exaggeration.

  18. Mr. Doctorow: I hesitate to accuse you (or your unknown source) of exaggerating the figure to whip up moral panic: but your statement that ‘more than 98% of all works in copyright are “orphaned”‘ has no authority that I know of.

    A few institutions have attempted to estimate (or guesstimate) the figure for so-called ‘orphan works’. I am not aware of anyone’s arriving at a vaguely credible figure that is even nearly half as high as 98%.

    Moreover, despite your evocative title, books are among the items least likely to be true ‘orphans’, since in virtually every case they bear the author’s name, and the publisher’s name and address. Let me quote Marybeth Peters, the US Register of Copyrights, in a statement to the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary: ‘Many out-of-print works have rights holders who are both identifiable and locatable through a search.’ Any anthologist or reprint publisher will tell you that this is unquestionably the case. And since the arrival of the web, it has never been easier to trace authors or their heirs, executors or agents, and old publishing houses and their new conglomerate owners. Most of the works that apparently fall into the category of ‘orphans’ are items like anonymous and undocumented photos, sound recordings, films, materials in manuscript.

    I would not dispute that the conservation of certain kinds of material is a pressing matter that needs resolving. Whether digitization is the perfect solution its proponents believe is another question entirely. I was talking to an archivist at Christmas who has looked into the issue and was unimpressed. She pointed out that fifty-year-old photos, kept in good conditions, may still be perfectly crisp and clear, while material in early electronic formats is already inaccessible, or virtually so. For my research, I have sometimes used physical copies of books that are 500+ years old, and still in fine condition: early rag paper was durable stuff. Will modern digital scans prove so long-lasting? There is still a very great deal to be said for the virtues of hard copies. – Gillian Spraggs

  19. I remarked similarly in an article written a few years ago:

    With the advent of globally networked computers and
    digitizing equipment, libraries can now provide more and
    better access to their special collections and considering
    the current economic milieu where information is readily
    bought, sold, and licienced, this may be the only future for
    libraries. This future may end up looking very much like the
    conclusion to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.


    Eric Lease Morgan

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