My summer digitization internship at the Graduate Theological Union‘s Flora Lamson Hewlett Library, has been different than expected. But as it comes to a close, I’ve reviewed my anticipated learning outcomes, and realize that I’ve met my goals. I started with a wild list of possible learning outcomes, that no one could possibly meet in one short summer. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and I pared the list down to three fairly specific goals:
- Competently use equipment and software for 1) the digitization of reel-to-reel audio tapes and 2) the management of digital files online in accordance with industry standards and best practices.
- Plan, assess and create descriptive, administrative, and structural metadata in order to support the discovery, management, and preservation of digital files.
- Demonstrate competence in applying knowledge of legal and ethical issues surrounding intellectual property in the management of digital collections in the online environment.
By tailoring the list so specifically, I was able to self direct my activities to a certain degree and spend the time it took (a luxury I realize working professionals don’t always have) to review material and learn about new aspects of the project, rather than flailing from task to task without direction. Of course, my site supervisor at the GTU Library, Melodie Frances, would never have let me fall into that trap in the first place. Fortunately for me, she allowed me to work independently, thus gaining confidence, and was ready and willing to listen to the knowledge I brought to the table, as many of the areas I was researching were new to her as well. Well, primarily the area of copyright. She had been involved with project metadata and digitization long before I arrived at her library. The intellectual property issues surrounding the project are a different cup of tea, however, and I will discuss my third learning outcome below.
Copyright for pre-1972 sound recordings, as I’ve posted before, is tricky stuff. Federal copyright law only applies to any underlying works on the recording such as a musical composition or poem, not to the actual recording itself. Seriously, this complicates matters. As a result, state law fills the gap, and protects the recording with criminal and civil antipiracy statutes, as well as state common law, including common law copyright (relating to the right of first publication), unfair competition & misappropriation, conversion, and unauthorized distribution. Additionally, rights of privacy and publicity can apply as well. And then of course, there is no guarantee which particular state’s laws will apply in a given case, as it is possible and highly likely for the laws from more than one state to apply, particularly when there are multiple copyright holders.
So what is a library or archive to do? There is hardly a circumstance where recordings are in the public domain. Clearly, one must attempt to get permission in good faith. But what about orphan works where the rights holder cannot be ascertained or found? Is it a safe bet to assess the risk, make sure that any intended use is not for commercial gain (directly or indirectly), and make it accessible online? Or is it best to wait until 2067 when the work enters the public domain? Waiting until 2067 just seems like too long a wait. Hopefully orphan works legislation will be passed before then, although I’m not holding my breath.
The whole issue is seriously complicated. I am finishing a paper about unpublished pre-1972 sound recordings for my internship. It is an assessment of current documentation at the GTU Library, the specific needs of the Jesuit Tape Collection, and recommendations for steps to take going forward with the digitization project. These poor tapes are at the end of their life span, and will not wait until 2067. For preservation sake, the digitization has to happen now. Fortunately, there is little risk with this. The problem is of course access. And what good is a historically significant tape collection, if few may access and use it?
One of the major advantages of digitizing a collection is increasing access to a wider audience while at the same time reducing wear and tear on the original, already damaged tapes during use. Magnetic reel-to-reel tapes just don’t last as long as some other materials.
Too bad intellectual property law is not up to date with the digital age of online access. I hope to see some positive changes to this as I move from intern to MLIS to professional.