June 5, 2004 · Lessig
More from Jerry Lobdill, who writes about his own wonderful experiences with the existing copyright system:
I am a small businessman. Among other things I am interested in publishing a few things. I have multiple interests, so the subjects I’m interested in vary. One of my interests is the history of the US, especially the era of the wild west.
I have discovered an out of print book that is extremely important to students of the wild west. It is extremely rare and was published only in first edition in 1928. This book was renewed in the name only of the author in 1955, and under present law will not enter public domain until 2022. (According to my research no published works will enter the public domain until 2019.) However, the author died in 1963. He had no children, and his wife died in 1976. Her will does not mention any copyrights. I am obtaining a copy of the will of the author but have not seen it yet. I have had the US Copyright Office do a paid search, and all they have on record is that the author renewed the copyright in 1955. There is no record of transfer of ownership on file.
I inquired of the original publisher if they knew anything about the author’s copyright and was first told that they knew nothing about the book of interest. Then, they said they thought they owned the copyright but were investigating to be certain. Then I was told that they definitely owned the copyright. When I asked for a xerox of the copyright transfer document that law prescribes, transferring the renewed copyright to them, they refused to produce it, saying that their policy is not to provide such information to “private parties”. When I explained that I was thinking of republishing the book and that the US Copyright Office records show that the renewal belonged to the author only, and that I needed proof of their claim before negotiating for publishing rights, I was told that I was too small a publisher to qualify.
So…here I sit, with an extensive file that contains no transfer document. The US Copyright Office has no record of a transfer of ownership, and I feel that there is a strong possibility that the publisher is lying about ownership. If so it would not be unusual in today’s environment. They probably hoped that I’d negotiate with them without proof.
As a result of this situation I have spent money and time and have only a written assertion of ownership without proof. Were it not for this unsupported claim I would know that there was a transfer or that there is no one alive who is likely to challenge my republication of the book.
The law is flawed in my opinion if it requires a written transfer of ownership (like real property) but does not require a claimant to produce the proof of ownership except in the context of a copyright infringement suit.
If you agree, what can be done to get the law repaired? The way it is now it invites and rewards false claims of this sort to the detriment of reasonable use of works that are effectively public domain.
(cf. “It’s simple.)