Is it or isn't it public domain?
November 13, 2007 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Is it or isn't it public domain? News article published in 1909 should be in the public domain, but news service I purchased it from says its copyrighted.

I just purchased a news article from 1909 from the Washington post news archives. It's dated 1909 and I had planned to republished it on another site as I thought it would be public domain. When I got the document, it said its copyrighted. I *thought* everything pre 1909 was public domain. Am I wrong or are they throwing a blanket copyright statement on to cover their arses? I did a search and found this thread with what appears to be a similar question. So if I retype the article that is scanned, it should be safe to republish?
posted by [insert clever name here] to Law & Government (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's public domain. Everything pre-1923 in the US is public domain.

Take a look here -- it's a wonderful site about what is and what isn't public domain in the US.
posted by the dief at 8:32 AM on November 13, 2007

I don't know this for sure, but could it be that their scan of the original document is the copyrighted item? I.E. you can certainly use the text of the article as a public domain item, but you couldn't repost a PDF from the WAPO archives without permission as that particular digital document is their copyrighted property.

Retyping the article for your use would seem to me to be perfectly legal.

Anyone smart want to weigh in on this?
posted by Aquaman at 8:40 AM on November 13, 2007

Aquaman is likely correct -- they're probably asserting their copyright over the scan, but there's no way in Hades that they own the text itself. Copy away.
posted by the dief at 8:45 AM on November 13, 2007

They're either asserting copyright over their scan, or (more likely IMO) they simply apply the copyright notice to everything in their archives regardless of whether it is true or not.
posted by mathowie at 8:52 AM on November 13, 2007

could it be that their scan of the original document is the copyrighted item?

posted by oaf at 9:04 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

oaf is correct. The mere transfer of a public-domain work into another medium does not create a new copyright in the work, no matter how difficult that transfer might be. Bridgeman is a good cite. Another is Earth Flag Ltd. v. Alamo Flag Co., 153 F.Supp.2d 349 (S.D.N.Y 2001). However, if the service has added anything to the article -- art, a syllabus, a sidebar, even just new pagination, they may have a copyright in those elements. Best bet is to retype the text as you suggested. IAAL IANYL. This is not legal advice.
posted by The Bellman at 9:25 AM on November 13, 2007

Is it the copywrite note something standard with all articles? Maybe whatever they release to be sold comes with a blanket copywrite regardless of age or whether or not it's public domain. Ideally they'd remove it for articles of required age, but I bet they just don't bother.
posted by yeti at 9:33 AM on November 13, 2007

Libraries in the UK are still asserting that Bridgeman vs. Corel-type rulings do not apply over here, so Googlers beware. But your Washington Post piece (scanned by the Washington Post in the US) is fine.
posted by caek at 9:43 AM on November 13, 2007

See previous discussions.
posted by caek at 9:48 AM on November 13, 2007

They probably put the same notice on every article sold, whether they still have a valid copyright, or not. Otherwise, they'd have to have a rolling date, in 1923 at this point, that distinquishes between copyrighted and non-copyrighted material.
posted by beagle at 11:15 AM on November 13, 2007

One problem is there is no real penalty for making a false claim of copyright when no copyright exists. Book publishers will publish public-domain classics and claim copyright on them. Until we get a law that punishes such behavior, expect to see lots more bogus copyright claims.
posted by fings at 12:08 PM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't believe you'll have any problem with this particular use but I do have one question.

All the scanning is done by Proquest which charges a substantial fee for access to their database. If it's as cut and dried as people are making it out to be here why wouldn't someone just download Proquest's entire collection of historical newspaper articles in pdf and set them up on their own site?
posted by otio at 12:29 PM on November 13, 2007


if you want to have a database of just 1923 and earlier documents, then it is feasible for you to do that. But you would still have to gain access to their resources via legal means, ie you would have to buy reproductions of all their work (they can still 'sell' what they have in possession, or really just selling access to their scans).

You would probably have to index all of the materials yourself, because I believe they could say that they own their index and database, just full rights to what is now public domain content.

Also in some ways, someone already has: Project Gutenberg provides many public domain books in digital format.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:28 PM on November 13, 2007

You may want to check on any user agreement or license you agreed to when purchasing it from the news service. It's possible the license, which could be independent of any copyright/public domain status, would prevent you from re-publishing the article. They're still wrong to claim copyright on the article, but if you agreed not to republish the article when purchasing it, doing so would be a breach of contract.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:29 PM on November 13, 2007

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