One of the most obvious problems and one that I have written about previously, is the propensity of recent publishers to claim copyright in old public domain documents. I will use as an example a book written and published in 1731. Another edition of the book was republished in 1838. Here is the WorldCat.org reference to the book:
Trow, John Fowler, and William Sever Lincoln. Alton Trials: Of Winthrop S. Gilman, Who Was Indicted with Enoch Long, Amos B. Roff, George H. Walworth, George H. Whitney, William Harned, John S. Noble, James Morss, Jr., Henry Tanner, Royal Weller, Reuben Gerry, and Thaddeus B. Hurlbut; for the Crime of Riot, Committed on the Night of the 7th of November, 1837, While Engaged in Defending a Printing Press, from an Attack Made on It at That Time, by an Armed Mob. New York: J.F. Trow, 1838.A quick search in Google books shows dozens of different editions containing the exact same material as originally published. Most of these books are "copyrighted" so there is no way that Google can show the content of the book and all that is available is a "Preview." In the case of this particular book, which I will refer to as the "Alton Trials" book to shorten the title, there are also quite a few digitized copies of the book in the public domain and completely readable and downloadable online. I chose a book that had both public domain and copyright copies to illustrate the issue of access. If you would like to see a copy of this book in the complete version see the Internet Archive version. This particular version is downloadable as follows:
So, I could merely take this public domain book that the Internet Archive has so conveniently provided to me in PDF format and incorporate it into a new binding, write a brief introduction and then sell the same book as a copyrighted work. Here is a screenshot of one of those many copies being sold as a copyrighted book on Amazon.com:
But this is only the beginning of the issue. What is even more problematic is that this same book is offered as book at the American Antiquarian Society website as a book in their collection but you cannot look at the book unless you are a member of the Society. What is wrong with this? Isn't that the same as Ancestry.com or whatever? Actually, it is the same. All of these organizations, take public domain documents and make them only available if you join their organization and pay for the privilege. This is not necessarily bad or good. If we take this example one more step, you can see the heart of the issue.
Where else would this particular book be available? The easiest way to find out is to go to WorldCat.org and check the book and see who has a copy of the book. It is in quite a few university libraries across the country. I chose the University of Utah as an example, since I used to work at the library there. So now I want to look at the book. There is a notation that the book has "online access."
When I click on that link, I get the following notation:
Here is the referenced copyright notice:
Copyright NoticesI left this in the format from the website. In essence, this company is selling public domain books, that are otherwise freely available, to universities for a fee, obviously, and then the university is limiting access to that same database to only enrolled students and faculty.
Here is the big question. How many limited edition public domain books are locked up in this sort of scheme? In the case of the book I chose, I could easily find another digitized copy. But what if that were not the case? Why is copyright being used to make money from books that are not subject to copyright? I guess I know the answer but this is not a political blog. By the way, if you live in Utah, your taxes are supporting the University of Utah so they can keep you from seeing and reading the public domain book. I chose this book because apparently, not all of the universities listed by WorldCat.org have actual copies of the books. What they apparently have, is a subscription to services that have the book but they put the book in their own catalogs as available.