May 31, 2009

Univ. Library Allows Free Usage of Digitized Public Domain Items

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Open access — the free availability and use of library materials online — took another step forward this month when the Cornell University Library dropped restrictions on the reproduction of public domain items from its collections.

The Library no longer requires users to secure permission or pay any accompanying permissions fees to reproduce or publish material from its digital collections. This announcement, which comes amidst plans by the Cornell Library Board to establish a fund to support open access publishing, has been eagerly received by many in the online community.

According to a press statement, “the Library, as the producer of digital reproductions made from its collections, has in the past licensed the use of those reproductions.”

“The threat of legal action, however, does little to stop bad actors while at the same time limits the good uses that can be made of digital surrogates,” noted Anne Kenney, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian.

“We decided it was more important to encourage the use of the public domain materials in our holdings than to impose roadblocks.”

With the shift in its policy, users can use reproductions of public domain works available via websites or made for them by the Library without requesting for specific permission.

By removing institutional restrictions on the use of public domain work, Cornell minimizes the risk of being liable for “copyfraud,” or the false claim of copyright control over works not under one’s legal control.

The impetus for the new policy was Cornell’s donation of more than 70,000 digitized public domain books to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization committed to building a free and openly accessible online digital library. The digitization of these works — all have been verified to be in the public domain — was sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation. The public can access these digital files at

“Imposing legally binding restrictions on these digital files would have been very difficult and in a way contrary to our broad support of open access principles,” noted Oya Rieger, associate university librarian for information technologies. “It seemed better just to acknowledge their public domain status and make them freely usable for any purpose.”

The policy is significant because it establishes that once a work enters into the public domain and is no longer under copyright, digitization does not result in new copyrights to become tacked onto it. In the words of blogger Peter Suber who commented on the Library’s new shift in its policy on The Open Access News: “the original books are in the public domain and the digitizers do not acquire new copyrights in the digital editions.”

Since it was announced on May 11, this news has been enthusiastically blogged on and twittered about by the online community, appearing in media outlets like the Library Journal Online and Peter Hirtle, senior policy adviser for the Cornell Library, noted that many had greeted the news with support and expressed surprise that librarians would have tried to restrict access to public domain material in the first place.

Close on the heels of this policy shift, plans are underway to develop an open access fee fund for authors of scholarly articles at Cornell. The idea would be to support faculty and scholars at Cornell who need funding for the publication of open access journals. The library is planning on allocating $25,000 towards this fund, with another $25,000 being matched by the Provost.

Commenting on the recent policy shift, Hirtle said: “Ultimately, our mission is to help disseminate and make available information and resources needed for scholarly work, rather than to treat the library holdings as assets to capitalize on.”