Unitarian minister and blogger Andrew Brown today posted a scanned PDF of the only in-depth biography of Universalist pioneer George de Benneville. I feel a bit bad because I’ve owned a copy for years — he paid dearly for his — and I never put it up.
He alludes to the problem of copyright — it was copyrighted in 1953. Now, since it was of that vintage, if it was never renewed, the work is in the public domain, and has been since 1981. That’ll take some research, but I think it’s a safe bet.
But if it was renewed and a copyright owner cannot be found, then this handy booklet becomes an orphan work and becomes good for nobody: not the unknown owner of the intellectual property and not good for historians, students or the general public who could not republish it. This is a serious intellectual property issue, and needs a remedy.
Until then, do download the book. (Again, I’d bet it’s in the public domain.) And I’ll scan my collection of mid-century Universalist imprints to see if there’s anything also orphaned but likely out of copyright.
Stanford Law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig had an opinion piece in the New York Times today worth reading, even if copyright issues aren’t your first concern. (“Little Orphan Artworks“)
The problem is that there quite a few mature works that are not old enough to be in the public domain but where the intellectual ownership is unknown. But there’s no registration and the proposed federal standard — to make a “diligent effort” to find the owner — is, in Lessig’s opinion, too much of a burden for those who might make use of a work that would other be lost to society. He proposes, within limits, a simplified, inexpensive and competitive registration system. I agree.
This matters for people in church life because so much of our soft culture — including songs, meditations, graphic images, recordings, sermons, liturgical elements, printed articles and the like — is of unknown or apocryphal origin. Can it, ought it be used? Or do we just turn a blind eye? An orderly system of rights maintenance makes for good boundaries and better practice.