Copyfraud, uncertainty and doubt: the vanishing online public domain



If an item in public domain is constantly being copyswatted, perhaps the site hosting it could put up a link with information about the frequent (and incorrect) takedown notices, such as who sent it, what proof they offered, total number of claims against the item, days since last claim, and so forth.

Perhaps displaying such information would have a salubrious effect against further false claims.

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From the perspective of consumers and society, objections to how these businesses operate is understandable. But it’s also true that these companies are businesses, and that being internet businesses doesn’t mean they are any less subject to profit motive than conventional businesses were.

When I was young, I bought a lot of public-domain books because they were cheap and I didn’t have much money. Buying an out-of-copyright classic for $5 was a lot easier than buying a $15 copyrighted modern classic. Today I would just download them for free on the Kindle, or gripe about paying a dollar or so for those that weren’t completely free. I don’t remember many people complaining about houses like Dover Books profiteering from public-domain works. Nor do we really complain about video companies selling (crappy) DVDs of public-domain movies like Penny Serenade.

But when it comes to digital versions distributed on the internet, we tend to believe that things should be free. We get statements saying that “our online services have looked less like the public platforms we want”: but the problem is that these are not public spaces (perhaps we would like them to be, but they’re not), they are not publicly subsidized, and the organizations that run them are subject to laws. Maybe we don’t like take-down laws, but the alternative is potentially massive liability for these hosting organizations, exposure to which would result in only curated and vetted media being made available: forget about your soundcloud upload. And maybe this is a viable alternative: when a company digitizes and uploads media themselves, they have complete control of what gets put up and can verify the copyright status. But it seems like a much more expensive way to build a media repository, and to the extent they have done the hard work of digitizing everything I’m not sure they shouldn’t be allowed to control how it is used (otherwise you will have more of what general Books did: scraping the repositories of other scanners/digitizers and monetizing the content at the expense of the original digitizer).

Of course, some mechanism for enforcing the takedown-fraud rules would definitely be a good thing, but I don’t think this adequately addresses the greater issue of how we conceptualize the nexus of public domain and private enterprise in the internet age.

I really really really want to know how you get into the YouTube automatic copyright system.

I’ve had public domain videos taken down by weird companies with California addresses but when you trace the company it’s some weird Chinese company using a drop address in the USA.

How do you get in that system where YouTube basically hands you ownership of title so you can continue to sell your $10 DVDs sourced from


As a content creator on youtube, I’ve been bitten by this too. I use some cc-licensed music for background, but others have used that same music in their recordings and claimed copyright on it, despite the cc-license. It’s been a nuisance to have to file an appeal everytime this happens, but usually everything works out fine.

Sadly, that has all come to an end, the person who used to distribute their music via cc-license has now decided to only license their music for money (a reasonable amount). I’m not upset with that. But due to the scammers claiming his music as theirs, he has now removed that music from his site. This means I can no longer win my appeals as the evidence I am using a cc-licensed piece of music is gone.

Feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place here.

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Well there is a certain amount of overhead in creating the book, dvd, cd, shipping it, etc so there probably is a floor profit cost for even public domain works even with digital media. I love and project gutenburg but there is a lot of stuff I can get for my Nook like my first actual purchase on it, all 12 Tarzan books for just under $5. Which yes probably available for free but best I can tell not in one package and possibly not as nicely formatted so I don’t find it awful to spend a few dollars for a professional formatting and packaging of the data.

Free books I got from for-profit booksellers generally turned out not to be such bargains. Proofreading was light to nonexistent, and when my Sony Reader software went south, I found that none of the books were accessible any more.

Archive and Google books tend to be unproofed OCR cases. If they were the only way to read a book, i gritted my teeth and plowed through the gibberish to deduce, fill in, and sometimes just give up and move on.

Gutenberg is the best of the lot. Somebody has cared about those books. Errors may creep through, but they have to run a gauntlet to make it.

To return to a place nearer the point of the article, it’s a shame that PG can’t do more. Predatory punks with lawyers make PD a minefield, and others of their number continue to diminish the entire field of what falls out of copyright. It’s well nigh time our lawmakers stopped kissing the ring of descendants of rights-holders and started getting back to the original, limited, nature of copyright.

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