[UFO Chicago] question about posting public domain works

Eric Pement pemente at northpark.edu
Sat Nov 1 14:38:07 EST 2003

I know that many "free information"-conscious people participate in 
this list, so I thought I'd post my question here. It's a bona-fide 
question I'm working on right now, regarding public domain works and 
works for which copyright has expired.  

I work for an academic institution whose librarians would like to 
post electronic (HTML) versions of works created prior to 1910, which 
are now in the public domain. However, rather than scanning in 
several such titles ourselves, can we use files which were digitized 
by other parties? Suppose we find an ASCII *.txt file of a work 
created in 1880 on a website or a CD-ROM. Can we convert that text 
file to *.html and put it on the web without violating copyright?   

Obviously, the text-as-wording is in the public domain. But some of 
the staff assert that the process of digitizing the text, by 
converting it to ASCII (or HTML or XML), is a new creation and that 
the text-as-code (with its own HTML or XML tags, or simply with the 
addition of ASCII tabs and newlines in plaintext format) is itself a 
new creation and therefore a new copyright adheres to such works.  

I understand that copyright can be asserted for the new arrangement 
and presentation of earlier works. But when plaintext or HTML 
attempts to mimic the presentation (chapter division, paragraphing, 
sentence sequence, italics, boldface, etc.) of the ORIGINAL SOURCE 
document, then I don't think the "new arrangement and presentation" 
argument for new copyright should successfully obtain.  

Can anyone answer this question for me? I visited the eff.org website 
and scanned through several pages dealing with electronic media, and 
this particular question was not addressed. If you don't know the 
answer, where do you suggest that I might search next? Personal email 
off-list is also okay. Thanks in advance.  

Kind regards,

Eric Pement - pemente at northpark.edu

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