Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Google Books extends copyright protection

Copyright holders have expressed concern about digitization initiatives such as Google Books fearing loss of revenue. A recent experience indicates they have nothing to fear as Google is taking a very conservative approach to copyright. In fact, to the extent that they are depriving people of access to books that have been in public domain for many years. Here's the story.

I don't always think of it, but every so often I visit Google Books looking for items related to my family history. Perhaps it was a news item about another source becoming available for their scanning that prompted me to visit his time.

My old home town was Great Yarmouth, in England, so I decided to search for books that mention Yarmouth. The third hit was a book I'd not heard of "The silvery hosts of the North sea, with a sketch of 'quaint old Yarmouth'" by C Stacy Watson. Maybe you guessed the silvery hosts refers to the herring that were a mainstay of the local economy. The fishery collapsed in the 1950s.

The publication was dated 1883, but only a snippet view was shown. It read "Of Yarmouth I can truly say there is little scenery, but there is plenty to see." I would like to have read more, but that's all that was available!

My initial thought was that the book should be out of copyright, but perhaps not. I'm no copyright expert. I seemed to recall there is a stipulation about copyright extending a certain number of years after the author's death. If the author was age 20 in 1883 and lived to be 100 he would have died in 1963, that's 43 years ago which perhaps could mean in some jurisdictions there would still be copyright protection.

Given today's genealogical resources can we find his death date. There was a little problem as he published the book under the name C Stacy-Watson, but nobody by that name could be found in the Ancestry database. In the FreeBMD death index there was a death entry for Christopher Stacy Watson in the 4th quarter of 1896. As the death was registered in Yarmouth, and he was the only man by that name in the 1891, 1881 and 1871 censuses, it was a pretty good bet it had to be him. That's 110 years ago, which should be long enough to clear copyright. So I emailed Google with that information and asked that the book be moved to the full view category.

Here is their reply:

The book you're referring (to) may be in public domain. However, as with all of our decisions related to the Google Book Search content, our goal is always to be conservative in our reading of both copyright law and the facts surrounding a particular book, and therefore we will continue to display the title in snippet view until we confirm that the book is in public domain.

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