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Internet Archive Gives New Life to Old Books

The Internet Archive has announced a promising initiative aimed at giving new, online life to 75-plus-year-old books. Although the Internet Archive has sometimes been cavalier about copyright and dismissive of the needs of authors, we are happy about this project, which aims to make 10,000 or more out-of-print books published between 1923 and 1941 available to researchers, historians, and readers. Helping libraries as well as authors take advantage of new digital opportunities is an Authors Guild priority.

Beginning with the pioneering Project Gutenberg, programs to scan printed books and make them available online have mostly been limited to those old enough to be in the public domain. That’s why Google’s notorious book-scanning project is able to display only small excerpts of copyrighted books, mostly with the cooperation of publishers. As a general rule, the cutoff date for displaying books in their entirety is 1923—all books published before then are automatically in the public domain.

The people at the Internet Archive, a San Francisco nonprofit founded by Brewster Kahle, are relying on an important feature of the Copyright Act that allows libraries and archives to copy books for researchers and scholars in the last 20 years of the books’ copyright life, as long as they aren’t commercially available. The exception was added to Section 108, the part of the copyright law that provides special exceptions for libraries and archives, in 1998 when the copyright terms were extended by 20 years. The rest of Section 108 was enacted in 1976, when the idea of “copying” didn’t envision the internet, and so section 108 badly needs updating. We’re working with the Copyright Office on this.

In the unlikely event that you have an in-print work swept up in this program and you’d like to object, please let us know and we’ll take care of that for you.

More importantly, the Guild is continuing to look for ways to bring newer out-of-print books back to life. Because many of these books are still protected by copyright and are or could be commercially viable, we’re working toward a collective licensing system. We’d like to see all out-of-print works taken out of the stacks and made available online, but in a way that authors can receive credit or payment if they so choose. Copyright owners ought to be able to license their work to libraries and universities and others, easily and transparently. We’ll keep you posted.