Acquiring Copyright Permission to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books

A Summary of a Report Published by the Digital Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources

Acquiring Copyright Permission to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books

By Denise Troll Covey
October 2005

This summary was written by Kathlin Smith

Realizing the dream of many scholars and librarians to create a rich, openly accessible digital library requires navigating copyright. Acquiring Copyright Permission to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books examines the practical aspects of seeking open access to books whose rights are privately held-that is, most work published since 1923. The author, principal librarian for special projects at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), describes three efforts at CMU to make books freely available on the Internet for public use. Her descriptions of this process and its results reveal an array of challenges, but also suggest strategies for success. The studies show that obtaining legal clearances requires an enormous investment of time, money, and patience.

The Random Sample Feasibility Study

The Random Sample Feasibility Study was conducted between 1999 and 2001. Its purpose was to determine how likely it was that publishers would grant nonexclusive permission to digitize and provide surface Web access to their copyrighted books and to gain insight into what factors influence publishers’ decisions.

The study targeted 277 randomly selected titles published by 209 publishers. Project staff requested permission on a title-by-title basis, mailing a separate letter for each inquiry, and a follow-up letter if needed. One-fifth of the publishers could not be located. Half of the publishers responded to the request letters, and more than one-fourth of them granted permission, thereby enabling CMU to digitize and provide Web access to about 25 percent of the copyrighted books in the sample. The average cost of obtaining a single permission was about $200.

The Fine and Rare Book Study

The Fine and Rare Book Study was conducted between 2001 and 2004. The effort focused on the Posner Memorial Collection of fine and rare books and associated archival material housed at CMU. The collection includes 284 copyrighted works owned by 104 copyright holders.

In this study, project staff found a way to save labor. If a publisher held several titles of interest, staff included all the titles in a single request letter rather than send one letter per publication. Staff also followed up by telephone or e-mail, rather than by mail, with publishers that had not responded to the first letter.

Although project staff located fewer of the publishers of copyrighted content in the Posner project than in the feasibility study, they greatly increased both the response and success rates during the second study. Almost two-thirds of the publishers responded to the request or follow-up letters, and almost half of them granted permission. This enabled CMU to digitize and provide Web access to most of the copyrighted titles in the Posner collection. Almost one-third of the publishers, accounting for 13 percent of the copyrighted titles in the Posner Collection, could not be located. The average transaction cost per copyrighted title in the Posner collection for which permission was granted was $78.

The Million Book Project study

The Million Book Project (MBP) aims to digitize and provide open access to 1 million books by 2007. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the governments of India and China, MBP is part of the Universal Library Project, a partnership of Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science and the CMU libraries.

In 2001, MBP planners decided that 100,000 of the 1 million books would be works in copyright. Project staff began selecting the copyrighted works to be digitized by consulting Books for College Libraries (BCL). The 50,000 titles cited in BCL were published by about 5,600 publishers. Because it would be too costly to seek title-by-title permission, project staff decided to use a per-publisher approach-to treat BCL as they would an approval plan for publishers. Staff asked the publishers of books cited in BCL for permission to digitize all their out-of-print, in-copyright books, or to digitize a subset of titles. The analysis in the report is based on 364 publishers with which staff sought to close negotiations.

Staff located all the publishers that they attempted to contact in the MBP. As of February 2005, 61 percent of the negotiations had been completed; the rest were still being negotiated. Almost one-fourth of the publishers granted permission to include at least some of their titles in the MBP; altogether, permission was given for at least 52,900 titles. Slightly more than one-fourth of the publishers denied permission. Of the publishers that granted permission, one-fourth did so for all or most of their out-of-print titles. More than half granted permission for a specific subset of their titles. The average transaction cost for obtaining permission in the MBP was 69 cents per title.

General Findings

The three studies show that however painstaking the effort, it is possible to secure permission to digitize and provide open access to books. The studies also found:

  • Locating copyright holders is difficult, expensive, and often unsuccessful, especially for older works.
  • For very large projects, the cost of obtaining permission on a title-by-title basis may be prohibitive.
  • Obtaining permission to digitize targeted collections of material is more successful than is obtaining permission for entire bodies of published work. The per-title cost of a targeted effort, however, is higher than that of a nontargeted approach.
  • The likelihood of gaining permission varies among types of publishers. Special publishers, authors and estates, museums and galleries, and scholarly associations were most likely to grant permission. University and commercial presses were the least likely to grant permission. Scholarly associations and university presses were more likely to grant access to older works than commercial publishers were.
  • Some types of publishers are easier to locate than others. Museums and galleries, scholarly associations, and university presses were the easiest publishers to locate; commercial publishers were the most difficult to locate and least likely to respond.
  • Publishers who deny permission may fear lost revenue, may no longer hold rights, or may be uncertain of their rights. The most common reason publishers gave for not participating in the MBP was they did not have the time and staff needed to check their paper files title-by-title to determine copyright status and ownership.
  • Publishers define “out of print” differently than librarians do. Even though a book may be listed as “out of print” in a catalog, publishers who still control rights to a book may not consider it to be so because print on demand can give a book new life.

More About this Report

Acquiring Copyright Permission to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books
by Denise Troll Covey
October 2005. ISBN 1-932326-22-7. 63 pages.

Copublished with Digital Library Federation. Report text is available free at or at Print copies can be ordered at the first URL for $25 per copy plus shipping.