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There is a good article in Searcher Magazine that documents specialists and other interested in public domain materials should read:
Title: ‘Copyfraud’ and Public Domain Works.
Author: Ebbinghouse, Carol
Source: Searcher; Jan2008, Vol. 16 Issue 1, p40-52, 9p
Ms. Ebbinghouse does a good job of explaining how some try to usurp the public domain through fraudulent notices and/or slight alterations of materials. Her opening gives a good flavor of what’s to come:

You find a PDF version of the Federalist Papers on the internet that is just what you need, but it carries a copyright date of 2001. Now that’s odd, considering that the last Federalist paper was written and published in 1788. Cautious, you find an ASCII text version, but it has a copyright date of 1999. Can you download this one? Does the fact that one is an image and the other plain text make any difference? And how the heck does anything written in the 18th century end up with post-1923 copyright dates?

Can someone legitimately move public domain text into copyright? What about when you go to an archive, only to find open source and nonpublic domain titles mixed in with public domain items, but the archive seems to put restrictions on your subsequent use of everything (no copying without permission; no commercial re-use, etc.)?

What leads some vendors to attempt to convince people that public domain materials are really under copyright? In part, because there’s little legal cost to doing so, According to Ms. Ebbinghouse:
As Jason Mazzone points out, "Copyright law suffers from a basic defect: The law’s strong protections for copyrights are not balanced by explicit protections for the public domain. Accordingly, copyright law itself creates strong incentives for copyfraud. The limited penalties for copyfraud under the Copyright Act, coupled with weak enforcement … give publishers an incentive to claim ownership, however spurious, in everything. Although falsely claiming copyright is technically a criminal offense under the Act [17 U.S.C. §506(c)] prosecutions are extremely rare. Moreover, the Copyright Act provides no civil penalty for claiming copyrights in public domain materials. … [and] no federal agency is specially charged with safeguarding the public domain."
Reading this paragraph gives rise to an interesting idea. What if there were substantial fines for removing works from the public domain and the fines were used to run an orphan copyright registry that people could use without fear of prosecution. What if the American Library Association could get together with large foundations and start suing corporations for violations of the public domain? Would it lead to a world where if you weren’t certain of a work’s, you presumed it was public domain for fear of the consequences of an illegal claim of copyright? We could live with that.
Waking up from that daydream, I want edto point out this articles to readers of FGI because so much government information is both public domain and often repackaged as being in copyright. And occaisionally like the first edition of the Iraq Study Group report, government documents have copyrighted materials embeded into them. Ms. Ebbinghouse’s article can help you navigate these difficult issues and help you deal with the copyfrauds out there.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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