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Ray Patterson would smile

Members of the Copyright Review Management System (CRMS) team.
Members of the Copyright Review Management System (CRMS) team.

The Copyright Review Management System (CRMS) managed by Melissa Levine, Head Copyright Officer and staff at the University of Michigan, is the 2016 L. Ray Patterson Award winner. The University of Michigan library staff created the CRMS to identify works in the HathiTrust digital library collection that are in the public domain.  Thus far, 323,334 titles have been identified, which is really quite astonishing. All of these works are now available as full text in the HathiTrust collection.  They are free for anyone to use in any way that they want because they are not protected by copyright. What makes this effort especially nice is that scores of librarians from across the country have been trained to use the CRMS and contribute to the effort.

One might think identifying works in the public domain should be an easy thing to do – just identify those works that are published before 1923 – but it is a lot more complicated than that. The term of copyright protection has changed several times in the last 50 years, creating a new protection regime from a set number of years –initially 14 years with one opportunity for an additional 14 year renewal – to one based on the life of the author plus 50 years, and then 70 years in 2002.  In addition, legal requirements necessary to formally obtain copyright protection, such as registration and notice, were eliminated because they were thought to be too burdensome for authors and other rights holders. When such formalities were required however, failure to renew and/or failure to place a copyright notice on the physical work led to many works moving into the public domain.  It is a complete mess, compounded by the fact that authoritative records about death dates and copyright transfer records do not exist.  Bottom line is that works published after 1923 may be in the public domain, but a thorough investigation is necessary.  Even then, it is often impossible to really know for sure if a title is public domain because of lack of evidence.  And in rarer, screwy situations, works published before 1923 may still be protected.

ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) gives the Patterson award to an individual or group that demonstrates dedication to a balanced U.S. copyright system through advocacy for a robust fair use doctrine and public domain. The award is named after L. Ray Patterson, a key legal figure who explained and justified the importance of users’ rights to information. Patterson helped articulate that copyright law was shifting from its original purpose and favoring the interests of copyright holders over those of the general public. Peter Hirtle, Affiliate Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, was one of several people who nominated the CRMS for the award. He remarked, “Among his many accomplishments, Patterson recognized the critical importance of the public domain. I would be hard-pressed to think of a group that has done more to assist librarians in identifying, understanding, and expanding the public domain than CRMS.”

Congratulations to all! Additional information on the L. Ray Patterson Copyright Award is on the ALA Web site.

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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