Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Access Copyright Charging for Public Domain Material

(Pygmalion and Galatea in the public domain)

A comment by one "Sysyphe" on my blog yesterday about Access Copyright ("AC") pointed out how AC is listing PD works in its repertoire for digital licensing. For those outside of Canada, AC is a collective that purports to license reprographic and digital reproduction of books, magazines, newspapers and other publications.

A quick check reveals the same practice in its transactional licensing tool.

Check out the AC licensing wizard,which offers to sell a license to make ten copies of 10 pages of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion for $25.00. The inconvenient truth, however, is that Shaw died in 1950 and his work is in the public domain in Canada. This does not speak well for AC's repertoire claims or to credibility in its long awaited and still invisible public domain registry.


Update - July 29, 2009:

The comment from Stephen below is interesting. The particular 1942 edition of Pygmalion I pointed to above does indeed have some still protected illustrations - but AC's Wizard will take my money regardless of which pages I am copying. It should only take my money for the protected pages. (leaving aside the question of whether AC actually has any rights here, which is always interesting).

However, it took me only a few seconds to find another Shavian example of a work clearly totally in the PD where AC is quite happy to take my money. It has photos, but the edition was published in 1931 - so even the photos are now in the PD in Canada. Here's the AC Wizard page for the 1931 NY Dodd, Mead edition of Don Juan in hell : from man and superman. Here's the AMICUS entry for that edition.


  1. The public domain registry *is* going to launch, but it will more likely be part of the OpenLibrary site than associated with Access Copyright. We developed a module for OpenLibrary that calculates when a work most likely enters the public domain based on available information, and that is being integrated into OL along with a large database of information about Canadian publications, partly from AC but largely from Canadian libraries.

  2. Wouldn't this be a great time for the government to make some real positive changes in copyright law by getting rid of the need for such a bass-ackwards thing like the PD registry. The Americans had it right before they joined Berne. There should be a copyright registry, not a PD registry.

    What if Canada took a leadership role in renegotiating Berne. Create an international copyright registry, change all copyrights to be from date of creation. Place maximum as well or instead of minimum terms.

    There are a zillion other good things they they could do, but this would be a good start.

    It is time to start thinking outside the box on copyright, and that box is Berne.

  3. Sounds great in theory, Darryl, but Berne is also at the heart of the WTO. Good luck renegotiating that - Canada just doesn't have the leverage.

    Let's start with some realistic goals, like staving off this tidal wave of ever-increasing copyrights. Let's agree to ratify WIPO, but at least ensure that consumer rights are protected to the max possible.

  4. This version of the Bernard Shaw play is not actually in public domain because there is another contributor, Feliks Topolski (1907-1989). While of course the unedited text of Shaw is in the public domain, the drawings are not and therefore the work when viewed as a whole is not. The AMICUS bibliographic record can be seen here:


    Because there are a lot of factors that go into making a public domain assessment, you can see that constructing a PD registry has its challenges.

  5. @stephen, that is absolutely right -- an automated PD registry (or really the PD calculator portion of it) is a real challenge because of missing information and different editions of the same texts. With the PD registry under development at OpenLibrary, we have tried to err on the side of caution while also giving people as much certainty as possible that they have found works in the public domain.

  6. Actinolite, the system is fundamentally broken. Without a ground up redesign you will never get a fair system that serves society's best interests instead of the lobbiests'.

    Your realistic goal of "staving off this tidal wave of ever-increasing copyrights" are unattainable without it. There is no way to reduce the constant building pressure for Canada to extend copyright terms and breadth without some sort of international agreement.

    Unfortunately when people (even copyright reformers) are so quick to dismiss fixing Berne, I have little hope. Berne and the WTO are the heart of the problem. Until they are addressed, there will never be fair copyright laws. As long as people are unwilling to even discuss it, fixing the problem will remain hopeless.

  7. This is what public domain allows. The collection of public domain works and then the resale of it with restrictive licenses.

    Public domain flows both ways.

  8. I have no idea what Anonymous at 1:18 meant by his/her comment.Read literally, it's simply wrong. But I generally only stop comments that are defamatory, ad hominem, irrelevant, incoherent or otherwise objectionable in my view.

  9. Isn't that a tiny bit illegal in Canada? In my ill-spent youth I distinctly remember my Sergeant-Major giving a lecture on the things that dishonest merchants can't do, and selling something they don't own was on the list.

  10. @Darryl,

    Berne and the WTO are not necessarily the biggest problem we face at the moment. There are methods of providing a fair bit of flexibility in a nation's copyright regime while still remaining compliant with both of them. The real danger, IMHO, is the nonsense coming from south of the border, pushing for draconian copyright laws that go well beyond Berne.

    We aren't going to renegotiate the agreements that underlie the existence of the WTO over copyright issues. There is simply too much at stake beyond copyright to make it even remotely possible.

  11. Let me share a story about AC's licensing for copy shops. Here is what I learned in law school during--but outside of--my first course in intellectual property.

    1. The copy shop wished to charge full AC royalty fees on Crown Copyright works (legislation & cases) for printing course note packages.

    The prof declined this and distributed his compilation as a series of PDF files (for each unit of study).

    2. The copy shop printed these PDFs at my request and asked no questions. (I had them coil bind each unit's notes all pretty, too, so I'd have thin notes to carry to class.)

    But I was curious about why they wanted to charge--so I asked and was rejected.

    3. The contract with AC is considered confidential by my student council (a corporate entity, not a union).

    There's not much faith here.