The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting article about the difficulties faced when negotiating rights fees for essays an editor wants to include in a volume about New Criticism. It makes an interesting point: Doesn’t the rights holder, often a publisher, have an obligation to promote the work and make it available for scholarship?

Here’s an idea that I’m sure has been said before: Copyright law should require the rights owner make the information available to the public in some fashion. If not available for more than, say, ten years, the copyright term would be severely shortened. In the case of printed material, it would mean that the rights holder would need to make the information available for some fee to the public either in a digital or printed form. That wouldn’t take care of the problem faced in putting together the New Criticism book, since the rights holder could still charge an exorbitant fee for the material, but it would give the publisher an incentive to not charge as much, because any use of the material in a book would count as being publicly available.

What that would affect is my greatest worry about long copyright terms. The lack of financial incentive to publish some material, combined with the fact that it can’t fall into the public domain for an extremely long time, causes works to fall into a limbo where they exist, but they aren’t truly available. We shouldn’t have to rely on the used-book market to find a majority of books published in the Twentieth Century. There are vast video archives locked away by rights holders who have little incentive to make them available even through lower-cost digital publishing systems.

However, put that information in the hands of thousands of individuals who have personal interest in the material and low-cost publishing systems…well, you can see it happening all over the place today, often illegally. But why should the public good of rescuing information be illegal?

Of course, DRM also has a hand in this question. Does it do us any good for a work to fall into the public domain if the only copies of it are encrypted? Particularly when it’s illegal to attempt to break that encryption? I have a lot of faith in the ability of the masses to break or otherwise circumvent encryption, but it should be explicitly legal to break encryption on public-domain works.

Anyway, enough pontificating for today. 🙂