Public Domain Day 2021: A Plea for Authors to Consider the Commons

Happy Public Domain Day! This year, works from 1925 enter the public domain in the US and many other countries. Read more about the public domain and what’s entering it this year on the CSPD.


illustration of a bear caught in a snare with two cubs by its sides.
Writing about this kind of stuff raises my blood pressure, so I’ll be showing off some public domain artwork throughout to break it up. Oil painting illustration from The Living Forest by Arthur Heming.

In the past, I’ve said that I think the burden to protect and expand the public domain falls most on creators. This year I’m going to focus specifically on one group, authors, their failure to live up to this responsibility, and the urgent need that they be more copyright literate and considerate of the public domain. Because this year, one case illustrates this problem perfectly—the Internet Archive.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization dedicated to digital archival. Its website hosts archived games, movies, music, books, Flash files, and past versions of other websites. Its mission is to preserve these cultural artifacts and provide easy access to them for researchers and the general public. These are works in the public domain, or works that have been uploaded by users. However, the Internet Archive also hosts many scans of copyrighted books through their Open Library, which are available to users through Controlled Digital Lending.

Controlled Digital Lending is a way for libraries to lend books digitally, while still respecting copyright law (that’s the ‘controlled’ part.) Under Controlled Digital Lending, a library can only lend as many copies digitally as it physically owns. I’ll just quote the CDL website itself, because it explains it nicely: “… if a library owns three copies of a title and digitizes one copy, it may use CDL to circulate one digital copy and two print, or three digital copies, or two digital copies and one print; in all cases, it could only circulate the same number of copies that it owned before digitization.” Many of the scans in the Open Library come from local libraries throughout the world. If the library doesn’t have a book the reader wants, the reader can sponsor it, purchasing a physical copy of the book to be digitized and made available in the Open Library forever. This is nothing too strange—this is how libraries work, mostly1. Buy the book once—or receive it as a donation from someone else who bought it—and circulate it forever. CDL is kinda like an instantaneous interlibrary loan that can be accessed online.

The value of this service should be self-evident. If it isn’t, consider this year. Early on in the pandemic most libraries were closed, with only digital resources available. This is great for newer books and popular old books, but the vast majority of books under copyright don’t have ebook versions available on services like Overdrive or Hoopla—readers couldn’t even request that their libraries obtain those ebook versions, because they simply don’t exist. So in early 2020, the only way to access these works without purchasing them (I’ll get to this exception in a bit) was through Controlled Digital Lending. So many educators, students, and readers of all stripes would have to turn away from their local or institutional libraries and utilize the Internet Archive—more patrons than the Internet Archive’s holdings could possibly support. So they suspended all waitlists on their Open Library. Patrons still didn’t have access to DRM-free files, patrons were still only able to borrow for set periods of time, but the Internet Archive was no longer limiting circulation to one copy, one hold. As many people as wanted to could check out a book simultaneously, without having to wait.

Again, the value, the urgency, of this initiative should be self-evident. Even without the pandemic, access to books often poses problems for students with limited money. For example, with an entire class of students needing a book required by the syllabus, unless the local library has multiple copies, students are forced to buy their own or wait to get it through an Interlibrary Loan. The keyword here is waiting—in an academic setting, waiting is often not an option. Assignments, reading discussions, capstone projects, all have deadlines. If you’re just looking for a fun read, sure, you can wait, or pick out a different book that’s available right away. But if you’re hunting down a chapter cited by a book which covers the exact niche angle on the niche topic of your thesis, you can’t just borrow any old book, and you may not have time to wait for other patrons. Students with enough money could buy their required reading, but not everyone has the funds to purchase multiple texts, sometimes quite expensive, every semester. This is the whole point of libraries, after all—if everyone could afford to buy every book they read, we wouldn’t need libraries in the first place. For specific examples of people who benefited from the NEL, see this post on the Internet Archive blog.

The National Emergency Library was to run from March 24 “through June 30, 2020, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.” Ultimately, it only ran until June 16th.

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Did the Author Really Mean That?

Today in my Dickens class, though in a roundabout way, the question was asked.

Did Dickens intentionally use all of the rhetorical devices that we analyze throughout his writing? (The actual question was how long it took Dickens to write his books, assuming that the more time he spent the more likely it was that his subtext was intentional.) This is a question I’ve heard in classes throughout my education—Did the author really mean that? Is it really possible that the author consciously layered in so much meta-textual meaning, or are we looking too hard? The paradox that jumps out at me most is the fact that a person can spend more time analyzing a sentence than the time it took to write the sentence—how do we reckon that?Read More »