Blown To Bits


Friday, June 26th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Register has a fascinating report on a new phenomenon, arising from the conjunction of stiff copyright laws and the zero-cost copying those laws were meant to combat, insofar as the works copied were under copyright. People are making copies of works in the public domain and slapping their own copyright notice on them, and then charging money for them. The article describes the use of this technique for some 19th century Japanese books. But why would anyone pay for them when they are in the public domain? Because it may be safer to do so rather than run the risk that you are wrong about the claimed copyright ownership. This scam hits universities hard, because they have proved to be attractive targets for copyright lawsuits and are likely to err on the side of paying (or, to be specific, having their students pay).

But what could be the business model for the scammers? After all, what if they publish books and no one buys them? No problem — they issue the books as print-on-demand volumes through Booksurge. They have no costs until the first copy gets ordered. There is not much incentive for Amazon (which owns Booksurge)_ to crack down.

We blogged awhile back about the Obama administration’s misunderstanding of the fact that White House photos are in the public domain (The White House Confused PhotoStream). No scam intended there, to be sure, but it’s an indicator of how the public domain will continue to get restricted if people don’t fight back. Oddly, Creative Commons (under which Blown to Bits is licensed for free download on this site) is now getting into the act, apparently on the wrong side.As the Register reports,

Now Creative Commons seeks expanded authority to administer the Public Domain, by issuing a “Creative Commons Public Domain License,” as if it was a sublicense of its own invention. Creative Commons is trying to expand its licensing authority over not just newly created works, but all public domain works.

Very odd. I hope someone will correct the Register, if they have the story wrong, or correct Creative Commons, if it’s right.

Added June 29: Creative Commons says the Register is wrong. CC says,

Creative Commons does not have any “authority to administer” the public domain, whatever that means. Our public domain tools are not licenses — there is no “Creative Commons Public Domain License”. CC0 is a waiver that allows a copyright holder, to the extent possible, to release all restrictions on a copyrighted work worldwide. The Public Domain Certification facilitates clearly marking works already in the public domain as such. We also don’t have “licensing authority” over newly created works. All of our tools are voluntary and have an over-arching goal of expanding the commons, more specifically the public domain in the case of CC0 (as much as possible) and the Public Domain Certification (the effective public domain, by making existing public domain works more clearly marked, including with metadata, making them more available and discoverable).

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