What Professor Litman’s classic open access book “Digital Copyright” teaches us

The central theme of Walled Culture the blog and the book (free digital versions available for download) is how copyright is a bad fit for the digital world. That has become increasingly evident over the last twenty years, as more copyright laws have been passed. But the story begins back in the early 1990s, when the copyright world woke up to the impact that the still-young Internet would have on the cosy assumptions about the difficulty of making copies, and companies started pressing for harsh laws that would head off that threat by throttling online activities.

The definitive history of those key early years is the book “Digital Copyright”, by Jessica Litman, the John F. Nickoll Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. When writing my history of digital copyright’s later development, I drew on her work for my first chapter to provide the context for what came after. It’s still a fascinating, in-depth discussion of how key laws that have proved so harmful were made, and why. The good news is that the book is freely available under a CC licence, as explained in a post on the Internet Archive blog:

After it went out of print in 2015, University of Michigan Press agreed to publish an open access edition of the book. Litman updated all the footnotes (some of which were broken links to web pages only available through preservation on Internet Archive) and made the updated book available under a CC-BY-ND license in 2017.

That reminds us that copyright typically prevents even the author from bringing an out-of-print work back into circulation, regardless of evident demand for it. Fortunately, Litman was able to free her own work because of the following:

Taking advantage of the book contract’s termination clause, she wrote to the publisher to recapture rights to the book. Litman said she persuaded the University of Michigan Press to publish a revised online and print-on-demand edition with a new postscript under a Creative Commons CC-BY-ND license.

Many authors are not aware of this option and the nonprofit Authors Alliance, of which Litman was a founding member, helps provide resources to assist authors in the process of regaining their copyright.

More specifically, the Authors Alliance offers free guides on Understanding Rights Reversion and Termination of Transfer.

It’s great to have Litman’s book freely available. It’s also good that it may raise awareness about the possibility for authors to reclaim rights from publishers if the conditions are right. But liberating books in this way requires an absurd amount of work to do something that should not be necessary in the first place. Authors should always have the right to distribute their works as they please, including online. It’s down to the publishers to find ways to make money in that context, something that is perfectly possible, whatever lobbyists for the copyright industry tell politicians.

Professor Litman will discuss her open access publishing experience and her take on copyright law with the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle in a free online book talk on 20th April (registration required.)

Featured image by Maize Books.

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