Books from 1923 to 1941 Now Liberated!

[press: boingboing]

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.

Trend of Maximum U.S. General Copyright Term by Tom W Bell

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.

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

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.

Internet Archive Bookmobile in front of
Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh: “Free to the People”

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.

Prof. Elizabeth
Townsend Gard

Tomi Aina
Law Student

Stan Sater
Law Student







Hundreds of thousands of books can now be liberated. Let’s bring the 20th century to 21st-century citizens. Everyone, rev your cameras!

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48 Responses to Books from 1923 to 1941 Now Liberated!

  1. Jeff Golick says:

    This is very cool. (Though, scrolling through the catalog, I’m pretty sure ASK MR BEAR is commercially available: .)

    • Thank you, and you look right, we will fix that.


      • Hi! Thanks! Yes, we found that “Ask Mr. Bear” was available with a new copy of the later version. It’s an interesting situation. What is a work? Is a 1930 version the same as the 1970 version? See the paper where we discuss these questions. In this instance, the data we had did not match the version at Amazon. So, the law students did not realize it was the same version. We are working to figure out how to address this in the future. The 1970s version was there but not the original. The beauty is that when there is an error like this, one can just remove its 108(h) status. My opinion. Not IA.

  2. Bob Stepno says:

    Will this also allow the Library of Congress to move the digital newspaper project further into the 20th century? Or fund The Internet Archive to help with that work?

  3. Does this pertain to books published outside of the US?

    • How can a US law apply to publications outside US? A common sense answer to your question is no. 🙂

      • IMSLP says:

        It applies to the foreign works still in the last 20 years of their term of protection in the US. Other countries have different exemptions to copyright, and nearly all use a very different system of determining copyright term – typically death of last surviving contributor plus xx years.

        The US term for items first published after 1922 and before 1978 is publication plus 95 years, which makes it the world’s most complicated copyright law.

        • Joseph Brennan says:

          Confusing is right.

          According to, if the post-1922 copyright expired before 1978, the work became public domain and remains so. For example suppose a work was copyright 1923, and the copyright was not renewed in the 28th year. That work was public domain after 1951 and remains so. So there are really two groups: 1923 to 1949, public domain unless renewed, and 1950 to 1977.

          Note: “I am not a lawyer.”

        • Yes, what’s tricky is determining the copyright status of foreign works in the U.S., because most of them were restored. So, that’s where our research helps. But yes, foreign works are eligible in their last twenty years of copyright.

          Regarding the term, yes, the maximum term for works first published between 1923 and 1977 is 95 years from first publication. As IMSLP is aware, the term can also be as low as “no term” or 28 years from first publication.

    • Yes! Section 108(h) applies to works both first published domestically in the US and also outside of the U.S. It only applies to published works, at the moment, but the U.S. Copyright Office is recommending unpublished works be added as well. Super exciting if we start to make foreign works available in the last twenty years of the U.S. copyright. It DOES NOT apply to the copyright status OUTSIDE of the U.S. Only for activities within the U.S.

  4. Joe in Australia says:

    It would be great if there were a way people could sponsor books to be curated and “bumped” to the head of the queue. That would not only defray costs, but help identify books that are in demand.

  5. Steven Tait says:

    And if a publisher actively sells a new edition of a work, all libraries will have to withdraw the work involved?

    • That’s a good question. There is no discussion in the law of what happens if after a library makes a work available through Section 108(h) a work is then published by the copyright holder. There is a portion of the law that gives us a clue. It says that copyright holders can file a notice at the copyright office that they intend or are making the work commercially available. One way to think of this is that once you have done your due diligence, you would only have to take it down if there was notice. But not certain. It was not meant for the libraries to have the check and check and check. It was meant to allow library patrons to view works that are being neglected by their copyright owners. So, not sure. My opinion, not IA. There is also something to be said that the new interest in the book may be from the “making available” through Section 108(h), and the market was created by the new copy. So, one could see this as a boost for the publishers, and that sales would follow. But the law is not clear.

  6. fernly says:

    What about the bottom-feeders who take a PD text from Gutenberg into some self-publishing platform like Kindle Direct, slap a new “introduction” on the front (typically cribbed from wikipedia), and start selling it? Does that make a book “actively for sale”?

    • Jeroen Hellingman says:

      Unlike these PD text from Project Gutenberg, the books here are still covered by (extended) copyright, and since those “publishers” do no fall under the last 20 years library exception, they will potentially expose themselves to infringement claims.

      Of course the copyright holder himself could do this very easily.

  7. IMSLP says:

    Yes it pertains to books published outside the US. Sonny Bono was dead when the law was passed so it’s a bit unfair to name it after him (but only a bit a he would no doubt have voted to pass it). The “Disney Collection” might be more apropos since it only cost Michael Eisner 600K in “campaign contributions” to get the ridiculous extension passed – chump change for the rodentines even in 1998. The best part was the lie told by “experts” about how it would “harmonize” with the rest of the world – when the opposite was true in a greater number of cases.

    At any rate, it’s a great idea to leverage 108h. The above short history serves as a warning. The clock starts ticking again (after a 20 year freeze) in 2019 in the US. On Jan. 1 of that year, the works first published in 1923 get out of jail. In 2020, those first published 1924 … and so on. Mr. Eisner’s fellow mousketeers will no doubt be scurrying through the halls of congress soon, since “Steamboat Willie” was published in 1927.

  8. Andrew Singleton says:

    I personally won’t hold my breath. Sure that clock looks like it’ll start, but when do the batteries get taken out again? Still, I believe Colbert was right in that cynicism is ignorance masquerading as wisdom.

    And as Jason Scott put it: Something is better than Nothing. You people are doing something about the problem. Keep doing that.

  9. Thanks, IMSLP, for your detailed reply, and for your years of fruitful labour in this domain!

  10. Thanks for the announcement! I see Lynd’s _Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture_ is in the initial collection, but I can easily find copies (new and used) for low prices (see e.g. Wouldn’t that disqualify it from being part of this program?

    (More generally, how can we give feedback on books that seem to be included in collections liks this by mistake?)

  11. Don Cummings says:

    What is the effect of a book in this time period, which has been made available at TIA, that then become available for sale tomorrow, next month, next year. It appears that you would need to take down the title. Yes?

    • We don’t know legally, but IMO, no. The law has a mechanism that allows copyright holders to file a notice of normal commercial exploitation at the U.S. Copyright Office. It seems IMO that once the clock begins, a library should do a search, and then, that’s it. It is a “reasonable” search requirement, not “diligent.” But again, my opinion, not IA.

  12. Jack says:

    Bono’s widow wound up with his seat in Congress. She’s the one who named and sponsored the bill iirc. She was horrified that anyone else would be able to record his music someday.

  13. Kory says:

    What is still being overlooked by many people is that thousands of books published after 1923 are already in the public domain and can be digitized! The old copyright law required that a renewal of copyright had to be filed in the 28th year of the first term of copyright. If such a renewal was not filed, then the work fell into the public domain. The new law did not take anything out of the public domain that was already there. So a book published in, say, 1940, that was not renewed in 1968, should be available for digitization. The vast majority of copyrights were probably never renewed.

    • Jeroen Hellingman says:

      Good point, but renewal research is complicated and risky. At Project Gutenberg, we sometimes handle non-renewals, but the copyright research is often more work than scanning, digitization, and all other activities combined. Also, “punitive” damages in copyright-infringement cases can be so high as to put an organisation depending on volunteers and donations out-of-business permanently.

      It would be nice to have a Distributed Proofreaders-like interface at to improve the accessibility and text-quality of those works.

    • Jeroen Hellingman says:

      Good point, but establishing that a copyright has not been renewed (and meets the other conditions for this exemption, i.e., of exclusive US authorship) takes considerable research. At Project Gutenberg we sometimes deal with non-renewals, and the research involved is often more work than all other activities to scan and digitize a book.

      Besides that, the legal risks are large, as costs of copyright infringement cases and potential fines are so high, they will easily put a volunteer organisation out of business.

      It would be nice to see a Distributed Proofreaders-like interface here at to help improve the OCRed text of these books.

      • Juliet Sutherland says:

        The Hathi folks are busily identifying material whose copyright was not renewed. I think they have that area fairly well covered. What’s happening here is in addition to that effort and will open up even more of the public domain, since I assume they are ignoring works whose copyright was not renewed.

        • Hi Juliet,
          I talked with Mike Furlough of Haithi on Friday. Their main constraint is the google contracts, but yes, I hope this 108h is going to help. Professor Elizabeth Townsend Gard’s durationator team is talking with them as well.

          If you or anyone you know would like to help make a program to figure out the section 108h status of books, we have 23,000 that are in that time period. (we also have to figure out the registration issue).

        • Stanford University has an awesome tool for searching the renewal records for books first published, 1923-1949. It is awesome. (I think it’s based on the work at Project Gutenberg at proofing the records.)

          We’ve taken the scans from IA (from the Copyright Office) and made a searchable database of all of the other records. We are still trying to finish it, but hope to have it available soon. And, my hope is that searching renewal records gets easier and easier. Greg Cram’s work at NYPL is helping with that. But there is much more that needs to be done. Renewal records for photographs, for instance…. a big problem.

  14. IMSLP says:

    Kory’s point is a good one, especially with respect to items first published in the US. There is a fairly decent online database at Stanford which covers most books. It does not cover items in other classes – notably Class E which was reserved for music (printed music, recordings did not fall under Federal law until 1972). The copyright office has never gotten around to ading the items published 1923-1950 to their online database, but they at least placed the whole series of the “Catalog of Copyright Entries” volumes here at, where you can do a virtual manual search for registrations and (more importantly) renewals.

    Note that items whose “country of origin” – which usually translates to country of first publication – between 1923 and 1963 are eligible for “restoration” under the GATT/TRIPS amendments made 3 years before the Mickey Mouse Copyright Law. So, lack of a renewal does not mean such works are free, especially if the publisher or author’s heirs filed a Notice of Intent to Enforce starting in 1996.

    • The problem with the manual search at IA is that a copyright holder could register a work anytime during the 28-year term. Another problem is guessing what category the copyright holder registered the works in. Super huge mess.

      And yes, restoration of foreign works means that a work that even if you don’t find a renewal record, the work may still be protected by copyright. Now you have to do a new set of calculations. I just taught this to my law students today. I thought their heads were going to explode.

  15. Robert Nagle says:

    This is good and hopeful news. Somebody should set up a way to suggest titles for possible inclusion in these collections.

    There are a lot of works between 1922 and 1932 which deserve attention. I’m thinking of the praised 1931 story collection Many Thousands Gone by John Peale Bishop which I found while compiling an online bibliography of fiction about the Civil War . It’s just a short story collection (but a very fine one!), and yet on Amazon I have never seen used copies of it sell for under $300. According to the Stanford’s Copyright Renewal Database, the copyright was renewed, but the work itself hasn’t been sold for a long while and it hasn’t been digitalized.

    This is just one example I know about, but I’m sure there are countless high quality works that people could make a compelling case for.

    • This is a perfect example of what Section 108(h) was designed for — if you can’t find a copy at a reasonable price and there are no new copies, the work is eligible (if it is the eligibility window of the last twenty years).

  16. Nemo says:

    Excellent move. While in EU we’re deadlocked with pointless discussions about silly orphan works databases and useless licenses from publishers, at least in USA private initiative from Internet Archive (and hopefully others) just gets stuff done!

    Quite ironic to name a public access system after the father of one of the worst acts of knowledge restriction in the last century, smart move as well. 😉

  17. Ed Sharpe says:

    I want to see all the bios on engineers and scientists scanned!


  18. Thanks Internet Archive for preserving our history!

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