Copyright Office Seeks Help In Fixing The Culture-Stifling Copyright Records Problem
from the it's-a-start dept
Last month, I wrote about the damage to the public domain caused by the difficulty of accessing older copyright registration records. Since much of the information is not digitized and locked up in books and card catalogs in Washington, countless works that have lapsed into the public domain are treated as if they were still under copyright, since confirming their status is a prohibitive task and the penalty for making a mistake can be severe. This problem, combined with the simple fact that copyright lasts way too long, leads to a huge cultural gap where works are still protected (or presumed to be) but the rightsholder (if one is even apparent) is not making them available.
At the time, the Copyright Office had informally asked for feedback on the idea of creating a “digital card catalog” of raw scans as a stopgap solution, since full digitization is still a major challenge. Now this effort is official: the Office posted two Requests For Information on the Federal Business Opportunities site, seeking outside vendors with the relevant technology and expertise.
The first pertains specifically to the virtual card catalog idea, which would involve raw images of the cards arranged in a virtual hierarchy to match the physical drawers, and currently only seeks to “determine the availability of such software in the marketplace either as an existing product or as a potential development effort”. The second deals with the next step, seeking more information on possible crowdsourcing solutions to help complete the records with metadata and searchable text.
It’s frankly unfortunate that this is necessary, and it wouldn’t be if ever-increasing copyright terms and retroactive extensions hadn’t locked up half of creative history. Today, culture has far outpaced copyright law, and the disconnect between the way things work and the way they are “supposed” to work is staggering. Nonetheless, fully digitized records would have a huge impact on society: people would discover that the public domain is a hell of a lot bigger than anyone thought, and all sorts of forgotten works would be discovered—and renewed both culturally and economically by new creative and business energy. Whether or not the Copyright Office can actually accomplish this task is uncertain, but it’s nice to see evidence of an ongoing effort.