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Copyfraud: Poisoning the public domain

How web giants are stealing the future of knowledge

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Copyfraud: How to do it

Committing copyfraud is astonishingly easy and costs nothing. I can borrow a public domain book from any library and scan it, or I could download the text from Project Gutenberg. I reformat it as a PDF, mark it with a copyright date, register it as a new book with an ISBN, then submit it to Amazon.com for sale. I may not even need to print and bind any books, I can offer it through Amazon's Booksurge print-on-demand service, or as an ebook on Kindle. Once the book is listed for sale, I can submit it to Google Books for inclusion in its index. I could easily publish thousands of books; most would never sell, but with zero up-front cost, any sale is pure profit.

But why would Google and Amazon permit this exploitation of the public domain? It could be argued it would be better to index these copyfraud editions. Perhaps it's better to have access to a fraudulently copyrighted, paid edition rather than no edition at all. I disagree. Google Books has structured its online service with no regard to preventing abuses, and so has created a financial incentive for some publishers to game the system. Google also has its own incentive, as it earns a small kickback on every sale referred to Amazon or other booksellers. Essentially, this system has become a successful inversion of the "micropayments" model, Google is profiting by administering millions of small transactions which divert vast sums of money to undeserving, unscrupulous publishers. Perhaps we should call it "microfraud".

Just as scholars were discovering their restricted access to these public domain works, Law Professor Jason Mazzone released a groundbreaking article, "Copyfraud", examining the problem and its impact. Mazzone asserts this type of copyfraud is targeted at universities. A recent infringement lawsuit denied universities Fair Use access to copyrighted materials, and has made them reluctant to use materials bearing even a fraudulent copyright. Some publishers profit from muddling the status of the copyright, so universities must force students to purchase documents they could otherwise obtain for free, driving up the cost of higher education."

Corporate interests like movie studios have an incentive to enforce legal access to the public domain, it is their source material, and they have an army of lawyers to back them up. But scholars have no such resources. A penniless student may be able to afford a $25 copyfraud edition, but not an expensive lawyer to sue to protect his rights.

Professor Mazzone also discusses another interesting case where a claim of copyright can be attached as a condition of access. This is the "sole-source monopoly", where only a single copy of a public domain work exists. I have previously discussed this issue in my article 'How To Copyright Michelangelo', Astonishingly, this pseudo-copyright has also afflicted the Leader of the Free World, President Obama.

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