Copyright Musings (Columns from Past CSGA Newsletters)

Copyright Musings(May – June 2009)
Barbara A. Ringer, who served as U.S. Register of Copyrights from 1973 to 1980, died April 9, 2009 at the age of 83. Ms Ringer joined the Copyright Office in 1949 and was instrumental in the creation and passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 which expanded the length of copyright to life of the creator plus 50 years. She retired in 1980 but returned on an interim basis in 1993 with warnings that new digital challenges would require the law to be brought into the internet era. One can’t help but wonder what Ms. Ringer thought as the internet filled with digital files and copyright controversy. As early as 1971 she felt it was “fair use” to record a song from the radio. Did her attitude change? Did she participate in adding years to the length of copyright? Or did she feel that  copyright to grandchildren and beyond was going overboard? I wish I had had a chance to discuss the issues with this guru of copyright law.

In the past months, the papers have been filled with copyright controversy. We have moved beyond the  discussion of sharing music files to the pirating of movies, posting of photographs, and digitization of books. It’s  sometimes hard to know which side to support. As a genealogist, I often use snippets from the works of others  citing either Fair Use principles or obtaining permission for the use. As an author I do want my work to be  recognized and never “borrowed” without credit. In fact, I truly believe we need to find a middle of the road solution to meet the challenges of the digital world. What that middle of the road solution will be is not clear to me.

To many, Google, with the aid of Yahoo, Microsoft and many other information age companies, has become the anti-copyright monster as the company rushes to digitize the literary world. We, the genealogical community,  however, could benefit by Google’s efforts. Often the books we want are those that are no longer published, have  limited availability and are still covered by a copyright. Google’s proposed solution could make those volumes
available and copyright holders could see royalties they never anticipated.

On the other hand, Google is also digitizing new, still in print books. Is this justified? Should in print books be dealt with in the same manner as those that are out of print? And while I’m musing, what about all the manuscripts that  are tucked away in repositories around the world. Wouldn’t the digitization efforts be better spent in making access to these little-known, under-used manuscripts possible. Efforts by the British Library, the Library of Congress, the World Digital Library and other repositories and digital services are barely scratching the surface of tucked-away treasures.

The Google model is a good start to solving the dilemma between access and copyright. Hopefully the discussion  will continue and the right mix will be developed for all copyrightable material. There are still many unanswered questions. How to ascertain the copyright rights of the digitizer of materials that are in or out of copyright; how to stop the Internet community from freely passing around digitized copyrighted materials without regard to the rights of the copyright holder; how to find copyright owners of obscure works; how long is long enough for a creator to have copyright? The list goes on and on.

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