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Cornell University Library keeps reproductions of public domain works in the public domain

May 12, 2009 in External, News, Public Domain

Page from Thomas Meehan's The native flowers and ferns of the United States in their botanical, horticultural and popular aspects (1878)

Yesterday Cornell University University Library announced that it will ‘remove all restrictions’ on digital reproductions of public domain works, meaning these are open as in opendefinition.org.

From the press release:

ITHACA, N.Y. (May 11, 2009) – In a dramatic change of practice, Cornell University Library has announced it will no longer require its users to seek permission to publish public domain items duplicated from its collections. Instead, users may now use reproductions of public domain works made for them by the Library or available via Web sites, without seeking any further permission.

The Library, as the producer of digital reproductions made from its collections, has in the past licensed the use of those reproductions. Individuals and corporations that failed to secure permission to repurpose these reproductions violated their agreement with the Library. “The threat of legal action, however,” noted Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, “does little to stop bad actors while at the same time limits the good uses that can be made of digital surrogates. We decided it was more important to encourage the use of the public domain materials in our holdings than to impose roadblocks.”

The immediate impetus for the new policy is Cornell’s donation of more than 70,000 digitized public domain books to the Internet Archive (details at www.archive.org/details/cornell).

“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,” said Oya Y. 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. And since it doesn’t make sense to have different rules for material that is reproduced at the request of patrons, we have removed permission obligations from public domain works.”

Institutional restrictions on the use of public domain work, sometimes labeled “copyfraud,” have been the subject of much scholarly criticism. The Cornell initiative goes further than many other recent attempts to open access to public domain material by removing restrictions on both commercial and non-commercial use. Users of the public domain works are still expected to determine on their own that works are in the public domain where they live. They also must respect non-copyright rights, such as the rights of privacy, publicity, and trademark. The Library will continue to charge service fees associated with the reproduction of analog material or the provision of versions of files different than what is freely available on the Web. All library Web sites will be updated to reflect this new policy during 2009.

The new Cornell policy can be found at cdl.library.cornell.edu/guidelines.html.

It is exciting news that a major University Library is taking a stance to ensure their digital reproductions of public domain works are explicitly open. We hope that other libraries, archives and cultural heritage institutions consider following suit – to keep the public domain in the public domain, as per the policy recommendation here:

Keep the public domain in the public domain. Encourage publicly funded cultural heritage institutions to allow digital copies of their holdings to be re-used by the public.

(Spotted by Peter Suber and Cory Doctorow!)

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