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Free the Books

conjugating international copyright laws
As a Google Library Partner , The University of Texas Libraries will digitize at least one million books from the Libraries’ unique collections, starting with our Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. This rich collection holds over 800,000 titles about and from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Librarians, faculty and alumni acquired these works by gift, exchange and purchase over eight decades to create a comprehensive collection to support teaching and research at the university.

Current technologies enable us to provide virtual access to these collections for study anywhere, but a tangle of international treaties and copyright laws complicates our use and distribution of foreign works. There is little guidance to help us reliably identify which of our books are already in the public domain so we are piloting a project to develop new tools for ourselves and for anyone who wants to tackle these difficult public domain problems. We will document our process, our progress and our results on these pages along with links to web resources we find useful. We invite suggestions and comments from other Google Library Partners and anyone undertaking similar or related projects. Comment on our posts.

Email us at freethebooks@gmail.com. We are here; we are building an evidence base and we are looking for virtual partners!

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 / conjugating international copyright laws

Golan v. Holder gets a second wind

As Lessig described it, “from the there’s-no-way-in-hell-you’ll-win-that-one department,” the case challenging the US roll-back of public domain status for foreign works that entered the pd here because their copyright owners failed to comply with US formalities at a time we had them, has gotten new life. Golan v. Holder (the defendant is always named as the current Attorney General — the case started out as Golan v. Ashcroft) was sent back to the district court to consider whether the roll-back violated the First Amendment because it changed the traditional contours of copyright, to the extent that those who had come to depend on a work’s being in the public domain lost their ability to use those works whose copyrights were restored.

Lessig is understandably excited about this case. It relies on the little glimmer of hope that Justice Ginsburg planted in Eldred v. Ashcroft, that the First Amendment really does have something to say about what Congress can do when it tinkers with the Copyright Act, but not in most cases. She said that the case of Eldred was not one where Congress had changed the traditional contours, so the “internal safeguards” such as fair use and first sale, were sufficient to keep things kosher with the Constitution. Et voila, Eldred lost. But now the court in Golan has indicated that a law that takes works long in the public domain, works that people have likely counted on being able to use freely, and just magically grants them a copyright lasting for the term they would have had if their owners had done everything they were supposed to do to get such a copyright (copyright notice, for example), goes too far. The Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) from the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT) is that law.

All that said, there’s still that limitation: it is unconstitutional to the extent it conflicts with reliance on public domain status taking place before the URAA was passed and/or went into effect. That isn’t quite the same as saying that it is simply unconstitutional. And this is just round 1. The decision will be appealed, no doubt. But Lessig is right. We will no doubt see more of this case. At least it suggests that there is a limit to what Congress can do for copyright owners at the expense of some, if not all members of, the public.

Air and Simple Gifts: Public domain shines within latest compositions

I was so happy all day long on Tuesday, watching the country, indeed the world, watch us welcome a new administration. One of the high-points was the fabulous rendering by four of the world’s finest musicians (even if they recorded it in the warmth) of John Williams’ composition, “Air and Simple Gifts,” based on the familiar Shaker melody referenced in the title. Because Simple Gifts belongs to the world, John was free as the air to weave his beautiful composition around it.

It was and is a simple gift, that we let our creative works become the seeds of new creative life at some point. Why, I wonder, have we come to think that the point at which we give our creative wealth to the children of the future should be in the neighborhood of, on average, a century after we created them? How on earth did we get to the point where we believe that that’s a good idea?

Listen to the performance. Savor the complexity built around the simplicity. Beautiful isn’t it?

Ah, is the public in for a treat!

A little off-topic, about the public interest in access to the goings on of the justice system more so than the public interest in access to the works the public is entitled to use as it sees fit when coyright has done its job already — Harvard’s Berkman Center founder, Charles Nesson, is representing Joel Tanenbaum, one of the 35,000 individuals sued so far in the RIAA’s “sue your customers into accepting your ideas about the future of the music industry” approach to its decade of difficulties. That’s The Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Well, in a double (at least) twist of irony, with a ruling that adroitly uses plays on words, double-meanings (reading it is a delight), the judge in the case agreed with Nesson about the benefit of admitting the Internet into the courtroom for an upcoming hearing. The plaintiff in this case, Sony Music BMG, wholeheartedly embraced the idea too …

Yeah, you must have caught that one, right? No way Sony agreed. Sony opposed the motion and, well, the Chronicle blog post explains what the judge said in her ruling:

“The public benefit of offering a more complete view of these proceedings is plain, especially via a medium so carefully attuned to the Internet Generation captivated by these file-sharing lawsuits,” Judge Nancy Gertner wrote. “‘Public’ today has a new resonance, especially in this case.”

Sony had opposed the Internet broadcast, arguing in court documents that the goal of the request was “to influence the proceedings themselves and to increase the defendant’s and his counsel’s notoriety,” The Boston Globe reported.

Judge Gertner called Sony’s objections “curious.” Recording companies’ mass-lawsuit campaign, she said, “effectively relies on the publicity resulting from this litigation.” (In a footnote, however, she acknowledged the recording industry’s move away from mass lawsuits, saying, “It is possible the plaintiffs have now changed their minds about the virtues of this strategy.”)

Interesting to see a judge slap a plaintiff silly! The decorum of the courtroom rarely admits of such directness. I can hardly wait to tune in.

[N]ext Thursday the Courtroom View Network will narrowcast the hearing — an oral argument — to the Berkman Center’s site.