On Friday, the Authors Alliance announced it had helped one of its members get the rights back to a pair of non-fiction works so he could release them under a Creative Commons license.
Although Dr. Robert Darnton’s two works involved are still in print, they have long since exhausted their commercial viability. The two are Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968) and The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (1979).
Dr. Darnton is a primary founder of the Digital Public Library of America, an organization strongly supportive of projects like the Authors Alliance. He correctly writes that, as with most authors with old or out-of-print works, he would lose little revenue by making them freely available, but he stands to gain access to readers.
More than anything else, I want to see my books reach new readers. I suspect most authors share this goal, though to be sure, writers who live from their keyboards need to balance their desire to reach readers with their need to make money. More power to them. But most of us, especially in the academic world, care primarily about the circulation of our ideas, and we do not want our books to die after their commercial lives have ended. How can you give your book new life? Make it available with help from the Authors Alliance. Follow the directions in the Authors Alliance guide, Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why, & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available, and have it distributed from an open-access repository—even through the collections offered to the public by the Digital Public Library of America. In doing so, you are not doling out charity. You are ensuring that your work’s continuing impact and relevance are not limited by its commercial life.
Apparently the process did not have the degree of contention that some authors (such as J.A. Konrath) have experienced in getting rights back to out-of-print works; Dr. Darnton thanks the Harvard University Press for graciously reverting the digital rights to him, and notes that they may well gain sales of the print editions from people who like the digital versions enough to purchase them.
Dr. Darnton’s two newly freed works may be viewed or downloaded in their entirety as PDFs via Hathitrust’s digital library. They are released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which means any derivative works must have an attribution to Dr. Darnton’s original work in them and must not be commercial uses. Anyone who does wish to make a commercial use of the material must license those rights separately from Dr. Darnton.
TeleRead covered the founding of the Authors Alliance in May 2014, as a 501(c)3 Creative Commons and fair use advocacy organization intended to counterbalance the Authors Guild (especially in regard to Google Books). We have also posted a number of stories about Dr. Darnton, who has been an outspoken advocate of a national digital public library.