Making a Brouhaha in the Blogosphere

Two weeks ago, Carl Malamud and I wrote to the U.S. Copyright Office seeking the release of their copyright registration database to the public without restriction. The letter, co-signed by prominent librarians and legal experts, asserts that the copyright catalog of monographs, documents, and serials should be freely available; it is a public resource, the fuel driving the copyright system itself.

Presently, the Copyright Office charges $55,125 to obtain the retrospective online database, and $31,500 for a current-year subscription that must be annually renewed, for an entry cost of $86,625. Copyright records are available for free only on what the Copyright Office calls a “record-oriented” interface, which has the functionality one would expect of an IBM 3270 terminal emulator dressed up in a style sheet.

In a voicemail that Marybeth Peters, the U.S. Register of Copyrights, left for Carl Malamud, Ms. Peters clarified that there is no copyright on any of the Copyright Office records; that they are “public records” and they should be “openly available.” Ms. Peters identified the Library of Congress’ Cataloging Distribution Service (CDS) as the unit responsible for providing access to the database; the CDS asserts it was mandated by the U.S. Congress to provide this service “at a charge of production and distribution cost plus 10%.” Carl and I have learned they have only two customers for this particular “product” and we don’t quite get the business model behind this constitutionally-mandated database.

The Library of Congress has responded to our request to fully release the database solely by describing it as “a bit of a blogospheric brouhaha over what the Library of Congress charges.”

We’re sympathetic with the desire of the Library to raise revenues, but this product isn’t theirs to sell. This is a public resource and all 21 million records of the database are now available in bulk, without restrictions [http | ftp].