Copyright as a Design Problem

Nothing happens unless first a dream.
—Carl Sandburg

Copyright is meant to do something—several things—to accomplish socially desirable ends. One of those ends is to create a space for a free exchange of ideas that allows us to build upon a universe of expression that came before. The world is a rich place because of authors, and it is enriched further by works of authorship in the public domain that anyone can copy, rearrange, and repurpose in any way they choose. This toolkit is an example of the tremendous work that can be accomplished when we are free to build on what has come before.

How can I tell if something is in the public domain? This is the central question addressed daily by the Copyright Review Management System (CRMS) project. It is a special question and one essential to the social bargain that society has struck with authors and rights holders.

It is also a deceptively simple question. There should be a straightforward answer, especially for books. It should be easy to know when something is—or is not—subject to copyright. At first glance, books look like straightforward artifacts. And yet, in an age of absolute fluidity of media and medium, even plain old books can be highly complex embodiments of copyright. We need to make it easier to ascertain whether a work is in the public domain. Indeed, recognition and respect for the public domain is a fundamental part of the social bargain of copyright. The interests of “rights holders” and “users” are often framed as in antithesis to one another. In the bigger picture, the two are intertwined. If the rights of copyright holders are to be respected and valued as part of the social bargain, the public domain as a matter of copyright law should be ascertainable and enjoyed.

Given this complexity, consider the determination of the copyright status of a given creative work as a design problem. How do we move the copyright status of works in the collections of our libraries, museums, and archives from confusion and uncertainty to clarity and opportunity? The earliest planners of CRMS—including John Wilkin, Anne Karle-Zenith, and Judith Ahronheim—recognized that if we are to shine light on the public domain, we must design systems to help us move from an opaque copyright landscape to one more clearly defined. Their determined efforts and the creation of the HathiTrust Digital Library made CRMS possible. For over six years, we have been building on their foundational work, iteratively refining our approach to the design problem of copyright research. We have a great deal to share from our experience.

The first thing we want to share is a sense of possibility. We have always recognized that copyright law and the application of that law are complex and only grow more so in a global framework. At the same time, we have come to appreciate that reasonable, committed, hardworking information professionals with the help of good counsel can navigate that complexity to great effect. CRMS has taught us that we can illuminate the public domain on a large scale, with hundreds of thousands of public domain works identified to date. This is no small feat, and we hope it will inspire others as they pursue similarly ambitious projects.

We also want to share our appreciation. CRMS was a significant effort involving well over sixty professionals spread across nineteen partner institutions. It drew on the experience and good guidance of countless colleagues. It also used tools like the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database, the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), and a host of other efforts to identify and describe authors all around the world. CRMS would not have been possible without the visionary decisions that built and continue to build HathiTrust. The tools others have built, combined with expertise provided by our colleagues and the collaborative spirit of our partners, humble us and enrich the work we do. We are sincerely grateful for the efforts of our community.

Melissa Levine
Lead Copyright Officer, University of Michigan Library
Ann Arbor, Michigan
May 16, 2016