The Register on copyfraud

logo_400_90.pngThe site with the best logo in the world, The Register, has a must read article on copyfraud written by Charles Eicher, who is an artist and multimedia producer in the American Midwest. He has a special interest in intellectual property rights in the Arts and Humanities. The article is too long to summarize, but his basic thesis is:

The public domain is the greatest resource in human history: eventually all knowledge will become part of it. Its riches serve all mankind, but it faces a new threat. Vast libraries of public domain works are being plundered by claims of “copyright”. It’s called copyfraud – and we’ll discover how large corporations like Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have structured their businesses to assist it and profit from it. …

This is something I’ve thought about, myself, when I see public domain works “re-branded” with copyright notices. The scam is this:

Committing copyfraud is astonishingly easy and costs nothing. I can borrow a public domain book from any library and scan it, or I could download the text from Project Gutenberg. I reformat it as a PDF, mark it with a copyright date, register it as a new book with an ISBN, then submit it to for sale. I may not even need to print and bind any books, I can offer it through Amazon’s Booksurge print-on-demand service, or as an ebook on Kindle. Once the book is listed for sale, I can submit it to Google Books for inclusion in its index. I could easily publish thousands of books; most would never sell, but with zero up-front cost, any sale is pure profit.

Go over and read the whole thing.

3 Comments on The Register on copyfraud

  1. from the Register article:

    “…and we’ll discover how large corporations like Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have structured their businesses to assist it and profit from it.”

    Oh puhleeze…a large helping of hyperbole here methinks. This “problem” certainly predates the existence of Amazon, Google, etc. by many decades.

    For decades, Penguin, Bantam, Dover, and many others have taken public domain materials, bound and printed them, and sold them with varying levels of copyright declaration. Most of the time you’ll probably just find in the fine print a mention that only copyrights an introduction or afterward or other editorial “enhancements”. Some times you’ll just find the “All Rights Reserved” declaration. Some times you’ll find a statement declaring that the edition has been “modernized” and a copyright date to reflect the publish date of this “modernized” edition.

    It is perfectly legal for someone to take a work in the public domain and add to it such that it becomes a transformed work and can be copyrighted as a work itself.

    Is it ethical to just take the text of a public domain work, make no transformation to the work and then just slap your own cover on it and claim the work is now copyrighted by “XXX”. No. Is it illegal? Possibly, but who is going to expend the time/money to call them on it?

    Folks that do publish these sort of “straight” editions also are not likely to try and sue anyone else that publishes a copy of say, “Little Women”. It is more likely they really just misunderstand copyright law and do not realize that what they are doing is really not proper or supported by copyright law. Perhaps the publishers impression is that if they just create their own original artwork for the cover that they are justified in putting a copyright notice in the book.

    Whatever the case may be the simple publication of a public domain work on say Amazon does not in any way preclude the public domain use of the “real” public domain work by…the public.

    I recall when the Kindle first came out and many folks started offering Kindle versions of classic public domain works. There was much discussion about how improper this was or how stupid it was to buy such a copy when one could go right to Project Gutenberg and get a copy for free.

    While one could go get a text from the Project Gutenberg site there was the additional effort of searching, snagging, converting the text – oftentimes with varying degrees of success.

    Sometimes it is worth spending the 99 cents to get a copy where somebody else has already taken the time and expended that effort. God bless ’em I say.

    Not everyone has the ability to sniff out either a digital file of the truly public domain version of a public domain work or buy an 80 year old paper copy of such a work. Most people that want to buy a Mark Twain story are going to have to rely on somebody printing/binding/selling them.

  2. Ooops, one more thing from the article:

    “All works of the US Government are in the public domain.”

    Not really true and a common misunderstanding. Many things funded by and published under the auspices of the US Gov. are produced by contractors and the copyrights are actually held by the contractor.

    Personally, I think anything and everything funded by public money (to include state and local not just federal) should be in the public domain. Unfortunately, I don’t get to decide these matters. :)

  3. One problem with that article is Mr. Eicher’s failure to distinguish between a Creative Commons license and a Creative Commons certification. A public domain certification is simply a convenient way of alerting people to the fact that something is in the public domain. And like all Creative Commons tools, it’s voluntary. If you just want to say, “This is in the public domain,” you can do so. If you want to leave off any sort of notice concerning copyright status, you can do so.

    So really, the article writer is blaming Creative Commons for a problem that exists at Flickr (Flickr not offering a simple “public domain” option).

    I echo what HeavyG says about it being perfectly legal to copyright edited public-domain works, and also that this has long been a practice of mainstream publishers. The sort of practice Mr. Eicher focusses his article on – copyrighting unedited public-domain works – sounds illegal to me, but it’s merely an extension of the slightly shady practice that mainstream academic publishers have indulged in for years, of slightly editing a public-domain work and then copyrighting that work. In fact, Mr. Eicher’s tone of shock is so sharp that I couldn’t help wonder whether he has ever checked the copyright pages of academic editions of public-domain works.

    As for his shock at the idea that public domain books might actually be re-published: Clearly, he has not been browsing lately through Penguin Classics.

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