Copyright Week: The Digital Public Domain

Michael Carroll | | January 14, 2014

Whatever one thinks about the rest of the Google Book business, I think it’s important to focus on the digitization of public domain books by both Google and the Open Content Alliance and to use these efforts as the basis for conceiving of the Digital Public Domain as a more robust version of the traditional public domain.

Here’s the gist of the argument:

1. Copyright and the Encouragement of Learning.

Copyright law is at the heart of concerns about using the Internet to provide universal access to learned and cultural works. These concerns arise in particular with respect to two related issues: access to books and other printed materials that can be digitized and shared over the Internet, and access to scholarly works yet to be produced, which could be shared over the Internet but routinely are not.

The purpose of copyright law has been to promote learning and the progress of knowledge. Two features of copyright law should provide the guide for how to respond to access concerns. First, copyright is an author’s right. This is definitional. Prior to 1710, the law provided exclusive printing rights to printers, leaving authors with no rights other than ownership rights in a physical manuscript. The first copyright act, the Statute of Anne, fundamentally changed this relationship by giving rights to authors, who could then make choices about with whom or how to publish. Since that time, copyright law has consistently remained an author’s right.