Asking for Access

Asking for Access

by Kathlin Smith

REALIZING THE DREAM of creating a rich, openly accessible digital library requires navigating copyright. A new study, Acquiring Copyright Permission to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books, examines the practical aspects of seeking open access to monographs whose rights are privately held—that is, most work published after 1923. The author, Denise Troll Covey, principal librarian for special projects at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), describes three efforts at CMU to make books freely available on the Internet for public use. Her descriptions of this process and its results reveal an array of challenges—from locating copyright holders to defining the meaning of out of print—but also suggest strategies for success. The studies show that obtaining legal clearances requires an enormous investment of time, money, and patience. […]

The three studies show that however painstaking the effort, it is possible to secure permission to digitize and provide open access to books. The following findings from the CMU projects may be instructive to others who plan to seek copyright permission for digitization.

* Locating copyright holders is difficult, expensive, and often unsuccessful. The three studies demonstrated the time-consuming and often-fruitless effort required to identify and locate copyright holders, especially those for older works. Publishers move, merge, or go out of business, or copyright reverts to the author. Authors and estates may be extremely difficult to find.
* For very large projects, the cost of obtaining permission on a title-by-title basis may be prohibitive.
* Obtaining permission to digitize targeted collections of material is more successful than is obtaining permission for entire bodies of published work. The per-title cost of a targeted effort, however, is higher than that of a nontargeted approach. Standard library practice is to target designated collections; therefore, the transaction costs suggested in the MBP may be unsuitable for planning purposes.
* The likelihood of gaining permission varies among types of publishers. Special publishers, authors and estates, museums and galleries, and scholarly associations were most likely to grant permission. University presses and commercial presses were the least likely to grant permission. Scholarly associations and university presses were more likely to grant access to older works than commercial publishers were.
* Some types of publishers are easier to locate than others. Museums and galleries, scholarly associations, and university presses were the easiest publishers to locate; commercial publishers were the most difficult to locate and least likely to respond.
* Publishers who deny permission may fear lost revenue, may no longer hold rights, or may be uncertain of their rights. Publishers who chose not to grant permission to digitize often did so because they feared lost revenue, even for older or out-of-print titles that were not generating revenue. Many publishers, particularly university presses, said that they wanted to participate but could not because copyright reverts to the author when their books go out of print. Many publishers noted that older contracts did not grant them electronic rights to the books or that they were uncertain of their rights in this regard. The most common reason publishers gave for not participating in the MBP was they did not have the time and staff needed to check their paper files title-by-title to determine copyright status and ownership.
* Publishers define “out of print” differently than librarians do. Even though a book may be listed as “out of print” in a catalog, publishers who still control rights to a book may view it otherwise because print on demand can give a book new life.

The study findings are preceded by a brief history of copyright law and practice. The full text of the report, copublished by CLIR and the Digital Library Federation, is available at

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