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.
While good news, it is too bad it is necessary to use this provision.
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 Riverside County, near 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.
Creative Commons founder, Larry Lessig fought the new law in court as unreasonable, unneeded, and ridiculous. In support of Lessig’s fight, the Internet Archive made an Internet bookmobile to celebrate what could be done with the public domain. We drove the bookmobile across the country to the Supreme Court to make books during the hearing of the case. Alas, we lost.
But there is an exemption from this extension of copyright, but only for libraries and only for works that are not actively for sale — we can scan them and make them available. Professor Townsend Gard had two legal interns work with the Internet Archive last summer to find how we can automate finding appropriate scanned books that could be liberated, and hand-vetted the first books for the collection. Professor Townsend Gard has just released an in-depth paper giving libraries guidance as to how to implement Section 108(h) based on her work with the Archive and other libraries. Together, we have called them “Last Twenty” Collections, as libraries and archives can copy and distribute to the general public qualified works in the last twenty years of their copyright.
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.”
Now it is the chance for libraries and citizens who have been reticent to scan works beyond 1923, to push forward to 1941, and the Internet Archive will host them. “I’ve always said that the silver lining of the unfortunate Eldred v. Ashcroft decision was the response from people to do something, to actively begin to limit the power of the copyright monopoly through action that promoted open access and CC licensing,” says Carrie Russell, Director of ALA’s Program of Public Access to Information. “As a result, the academy and the general public has rediscovered the value of the public domain. The Last Twenty project joins the Internet Archive, the HathiTrust copyright review project, and the Creative Commons in amassing our public domain to further new scholarship, creativity, and learning.”
We thank and congratulate Team Durationator and Professor Townsend Gard for all the hard work that went into making this new collection possible. Professor Townsend Gard, along with her husband, Dr. Ron Gard, have started a company, Limited Times, to assist libraries, archives, and museums implementing Section 108(h), “Last Twenty” collections, and other aspects of the copyright law.
Hundreds of thousands of books can now be liberated. Let’s bring the 20th century to 21st-century citizens. Everyone, rev your cameras!