Enclosing the public domain: The restriction of public domain books in a digital environment

Alex Clark, Brenda Chawner


This paper explores restrictions that are being applied to New Zealand public domain books once they have been digitized and hosted online. The study assesses access and usage restrictions within six online repositories, using a sample of 100 pre–1890 New Zealand heritage books. The findings indicate that new restrictions are being applied to works no longer protected by copyright. Out of the 50 titles that had been digitized, only three were hosted by repositories that do not restrict any type of subsequent use. Furthermore, 48 percent (24) were subject to access restrictions. Copyright law’s delicate balance between public and private interests is being eroded by the prevalence of online terms and conditions, which invoke the doctrine of contract law in an attempt to restrict the public domain and opt–out of limitations upon copyright. Furthermore, ambiguity surrounding the copyright status of some books is encouraging digitizers to adopt restrictive access policies, even when a work is highly likely to be in the public domain. Unless clear rules of online curatorship are articulated within legislation, previously liberated public domain works are at risk of being restricted by online intermediaries.


public domain; copyright law; contract law; book digitization

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i6.4975

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