The digitization of collections of print, sound, images, and other media has been a growing trend in recent years. This process allows greater access for scholars and researchers who can’t afford the time or expense to travel to a distant archive to view the actual materials.
The problem arises when there are works contained in the collection that are of uncertain copyright status. This was the case recently with a collection of recordings of Mexican and Mexican American recordings donated to the University of California in Los Angeles.
Because some of the recordings did not contain any obvious copyright information, and because there were no authorities to consult on the uncertain status, the university is only allowing users to listen to 50-second snippets of any songs that it is not certain of the copyright status of.
The university is playing it safe because it doesn’t want to risk a copyright infringement suit by any record labels that might hold the rights to a given recording. Other colleges and universities are going along the same route.
In fact, some colleges and universities are deciding not to digitize collections at all, just to prevent any potential copyright infringement issues. This means that information that could be preserved and archived for future use by researchers and students is being lost, aging away in boxes, slowly crumbling to dust.
And why all the fuss over copyright laws? Since changes to copyright laws in 1978, the status of many works is unsure. Creators were no longer required to apply for a copyright, and were no longer required to apply for renewal of the copyright.
Every image, recording, piece of writing, and other creative works are potentially covered under copyright law, even if there is no marking on them to indicate this. This makes digitizing works and making them accessible to the general public a potentially dangerous activity for public entities such as libraries and universities.
So what is the answer to this situation? Currently bills are being considered for presentation to Congress that would extend the “fair use” policy of copyright law, allowing public institutions to make available rare, hard to access items. The theory is that the cost of researching each title for copyright status is cost-prohibitive and that making the items available for academic use should not be limited.
In the meantime, college students and scholars will have to make do with the resources that are available to them, never knowing what other items might be available that might shape their opinions and research in vastly different directions.