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Of Orphans and Ownership

Books published before 1923 rest happily in the public domain, awaiting all manner of academic reappropriation. Books printed after 1963, meanwhile, sit quietly under copyright, thanks to a 1976 act that automatically renews the protected status of those works.

But works created during the four decades in between live in limbo. Some are still under copyright, but others have become “orphan works” — books that have exhausted their commercial life spans and have no apparent owners. Tracking down the copyright holders for works over half a century old can be an awfully tedious and inexact process, so it’s hard sorting the orphans from the books that still have owners. But it’s important to do just that: Librarians who want to digitize titles from their collections usually need to know whether the works they’re scanning are, in fact, still under copyright.

Enter Stanford University’s new Copyright Renewal Database, an online repository that aims to make it easier to identify orphans. Piggybacking on the work of Project Gutenberg, Stanford has collected transcriptions of the U.S. Copyright Office’s Catalog of Copyright Entries — a publication that lists works whose owners chose to renew their copyrights. Copyright-renewal records are notoriously patchy, so the database may not be a silver bullet for librarians and scholars searching for copyright holders. But for now, it’s almost certainly the closest thing those researchers have to a one-stop shop. —Brock Read

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