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July 28, 2005

Leaving your legacy

Culture Cat this morning has a post, Linkage: mostly outrageous, but two bright spots, on the problems of orphan academic works pointing to a Chronicle article.

The good news is, today's Chronicle has an article about orphan works, which I hope will raise some awareness among scholars about the obstructive qualities of copyright. From the article (link added):
In response to the U.S. Copyright Office's request for comments, Cornell University librarians added up the money and time spent clearing copyright on 343 monographs for a digital archive of literature on agriculture. Although the library has spent $50,000 and months of staff time calling publishers, authors, and authors' heirs, it has not been able to identify the owners of 58 percent of the monographs.

"In 47 cases we were denied permission, and this was primarily because the people we contacted were unsure whether they could authorize the reproduction or not," says Peter B. Hirtle, who monitors intellectual-property issues for Cornell's libraries. "Copyright is supposed to advance the sciences and arts, and this is copyright becoming an impediment to the sciences and arts."

Restrictions on using orphan works, often imposed by risk-averse lawyers at colleges and museums, affect scholarly work in ways large and small.

As academics if we care about our legacy and future access to our work we should be assigning our copyright ourselves and then doing so with that person's knowledge and understanding of our wishes and their obligations. In essence if we have publications we never die without "property". Is the copyright law the real issue or is the problem that academics don't plan for this eventuality? From the article the answer is at best unclear.  Think about this issue when you are doing your estate planning. Even planning can't always make sure that someone can find the new copyright owner but it goes a long way toward resolving the problem without making substantive changes to a problematic law that will probably make the law more problematic.

Posted by prolurkr at July 28, 2005 07:38 AM

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No doubt. Making the intentions known might even mean there would be more CC-licensed and public domain content out there. But what about all the immediate problem -- what should they do with all the orphan works that are being detained now? As a SLIS person, I'm sure you have a thoughtful and sophisticated view of the topic.

Posted by: Clancy at July 28, 2005 10:41 AM

Thoughtful maybe but I'm not at all sure about sophisticated. I believe that with every change we make we help somethings and hurt others. As such I think it is impossible for there not to be issues of bridging when we look at orphan academic work. These works are usually, at least I hope usually, older works that pre-date digital archives and the technologies that make such archives possible. The need to make arrangements for such works to be available to technological preservation was not seen by their creators or their heirs. So it is possible that, like the works stored at Alexandria, they will be, in part, lost or restricted in their availability for access in new mediums.

I don't like that answer but I also don't like the other options I can see that would correct the problem. To do so would require either restricting copyright, something that is a debate all unto itself. Or transitioning orphaned copyrights to some governing body...and who defines "orphaned" and in what senses would that option be available and who would run the “governing body” and under what rules…. Neither of these options seem appropriate to me as they both lose the sense of the authors protection for the period covered under the U.S. copyright laws.

Posted by: Lois at July 28, 2005 11:18 AM