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« Wired News: Saving the Artistic Orphans | Main | Some thought on the internet and society in relation to unpublished works »

September 24, 2004


Peter Hirtle

I think that we can all agree that LC sets a high standard for copyright investigation, but I don't think it is a model anyone other than LC can follow. Because LC has the Copyright Office under its wing, I would bet it feels a special responsibility to investigate copyright in its digital collections. Hence it has had lawyers on the staff to supervise the investigations, and of course it has ready access to the records of the Copyright Office itself. Studies that have been done of seeking permission for digitization, however, suggest that it costs anywhere from $2 to $7 per item to do the investigation - and even that expense will only generate at best maybe a 50% return. The projects, if my memory serves me right, give up after that.

I can't accept your assertion that NYPL is worse than the Mark Twain papers in its approach to scholars. Sure, there is certainty in the MT approach: you know with certainty that Mark Twain's letters are copyrighted and that you need the permission of both the MT papers and the holding repositories in order to be able to publish any extensive results from them. With NYPL, all you have to worry about is the repository's interests if an author, such as Twain, had died before 1933. Needing to seek only one set of permissions seems to me to be more user friendly.

Archives and manuscript repositories could do a better job of conveying to the public information about copyright that it has. That is one reason why the Ransom Center created the WATCH project: It is also one reason why the METS standards group has created a draft METS rights declaration schema: see

Maybe one day ever digital object will be accompanied by a declaration of the rights in that object. For now, though, I think that it is more productive for archives to make as much stuff reasonably available as is possible, rather than engaging in expensive (and often fruitless) investigations into the copyright ownership of the work. That work is better left to the scholar who may want to use the work. Even LC states, as in the Hannah Arendt papers, that it "makes no warranty with regard to their use for other [than educational and research] purposes. Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of an item and securing any necessary permissions ultimately rests with persons desiring to use the item."


Peter, I like all of the points you make, and it reminds me so clearly why I started this blog in the first place. Will post more later this evening.

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