The Preservation of Knowledge

Thoughts on Reprinting and Copyright

The works in which I am most frequently interested are usually of no economic importance whatever: texts, images, drawings, and so forth of old mechanical and technical subjects, often from the 19th century. Frequently they are scarce, but demand, not scarcity, creates value, and these works are not in great demand. Yet within a small community of enthusiasts, these works are of considerable interest. This interest and their scarcity suggests that in addition to being preserved these works should be reprinted. Nothing lasts forever, and despite best efforts at preservation all individual copies of any work will be, in the end, destroyed.

When these works are in the public domain (and I will concern myself in this argument only with works which are, in their original publication, presently in the public domain) and when they are reprinted in such a way as to show clearly that the reprints, too, are in the public domain, no harm is done to them. However, quite frequently the reprinter of such public domain works asserts, with or without justification, a new copyright. This, I argue, does great harm indeed.

Within a matter of decades, it is likely that the few original copies of such works will have been destroyed. Their reprints may remain as the only evidence of them. Yet within these same decades, or perhaps only a few more or a few less, these reprints will also be destroyed. Again, nothing lasts forever. Only copies of copies (of copies...) will survive indefinitely into the future.

Yet how will these future copies be made? Current copyright law has extended the period of new copyright beyond the physical survivability of many media, and destructive cultural events reduce the survival of works still further. If a public domain work from, say, the 19th century is reprinted today, and if in that reprint a fresh copyright is asserted, by the time that copyright expires both the 19th century originals and the reprints quite probably all will have been lost.

The point is simple: If you reprint a public domain work and assert a new copyright on your reprint, then even as you reprint it you may be condemning it to extinction.

The assertion of new copyright on public domain works is particularly egregious for institutions such as libraries and museums which are charged with the preservation of these works. A few institutions, such as the U.S. Library of Congress, take admirable steps to attempt to identify the copyright status of works and explicitly do not assert any new copyright on works they reprint. Many other institutions, however, do not follow this commendable lead.

It is important, then, for individuals, for commercial publishers, and especially for institutions, to note clearly that works in the public domain are in the public domain and that in reprinted versions they remain in the public domain. At very least, for situations where some new copyright rights might legitimately be claimed on the basis of additional work in the preparation of a reprint, reprinted public domain works should be licensed under terms which permit either copying (such as various of the Creative Commons "attribution plus other terms" licenses) or the expiration of this new copyright after a legitimate period (such as the Creative Commons "Founders' Copyright").

A Library of Antiquarian Technology