Analysis of the post-1923 print books in WorldCat suggests significant limitations to automated assessment of copyright status using bibliographic data. Difficulties arise in operationalizing apparently simple concepts: the simple assertion “this book was first published in the United States” can be challenged in terms of the definitions of “book” and “published”; uncertainty can even exist over a book’s original country of publication. More generally, assertions that we might like to make about information resources in the context of new issues and questions are not always easily generated from existing data sources built for other purposes. While automated analysis of bibliographic data is useful for establishing the general contours of a large collection of print books in terms of copyright status, it is likely insufficient for making a definitive assessment of any one book’s copyright status. Manual intervention will almost certainly be required in many cases, especially if the book turns out to be an orphan work.
Investigations aimed at determining copyright status are becoming more prominent in the procedures and workflows of libraries and other organizations. A recent OCLC Research report found that even as these investigations become more common, much ambiguity still surrounds this work in regard to reliable sources of copyright evidence, procedural due diligence, and benchmarks for decision-making. Often, no single source of information exists to establish an item’s “copyright provenance”, and institutions invoke different rules and criteria for arriving at a copyright status assessment. At this point, copyright investigations seems to be more ad hoc than formulaic, more art than science, and oriented toward minimizing risk rather than achieving certainty. The labor intensity – and by extension, the time and expense – associated with copyright investigations underscores the importance of finding ways to reduce costs: for example by sharing the results of copyright investigations to reduce duplicative effort.
Another important finding from the analysis is the prominence of academic institutions as both suppliers and consumers of mass digitization activities like Google Books. From a supply-side perspective, well over half of the total holdings attached to the 15.5 million US-published print book manifestations in WorldCat belong to academic institutions, indicating that institutions of this kind will necessarily be important sources of the raw materials – print books – needed to supply mass digitization activities. Indeed, most of the current participants in the Google Books library program are academic institutions. From a demand-side perspective, the nature of the materials residing in the collections of academic institutions are, of course, tailored to fit the needs of a research- or specialist-oriented audience, as evidenced by the audience level calculations for the “G3” nonfiction print book collection. Digitization activities operating primarily on the print book holdings of academic institutions will produce digital resources predominantly of interest to academic audiences.
Copyright and regulatory regimes define the limits of what can be done with an information resource. Computing and network technologies afford much greater opportunity to replicate, distribute, access, and re-purpose information, and as a consequence, views on what these limits should be have been subject to much wider interpretation. Debate over initiatives like the proposed Google book settlement will help shape these limits, but an important element of the discussion is a thorough understanding of the scope and characteristics of the in-copyright materials in library collections.