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Ebooks, copyright, and the University of Virginia

I’m in the middle of writing a book about Mobile Technologies and Libraries, and am researching libraries providing mobile-specific services of all sorts. I came across the University of Virginia’s Ebook Library, and decided to take a look at what they are offering. It’s a very old ebook collection, with the original Etext division starting in 1992. Here’s the part that made me scratch my head…it’s in their Access and Conditions of Use:

While many of these items are made publicly-accessible, they are not all public domain — the vast majority of the images, and a number of the texts, including all of those from the University of Virginia Special Collections Department, are copyrighted to the University of Virginia Library, for example, and a number of other texts are still copyrighted to their original print publishers and made available here with permission.

I have no qualms with the texts that are copyrighted by their original publishers, and that UVA got permission to use. My eyebrows raise at the bit about “including all those from the University of Virginia Special Collections Department, are copyrighted to the University of Virginia Library…”


I had my suspicions here…it’s not like the UVA Special Collections Department are writing books, right? After look around, I found this text: Po’ Sandy by Charles W. Chestnutt. Published in 1888 in the Atlantic Monthly in New York, it is clearly in the public domain in the United States. But there it is, in the front matter:

Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

Looking around just a bit, it looks like this shows up on all sorts of texts that UVA digitized. My favorite is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, completed in 1788 by Franklin but the particular version republished by UVA was published in 1909 by P. F. Collier & Son Company in New York. Also, without any doubt, in the Public Domain in the US. It also has the note:

Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

What gives UVA the right to claim copyright on these texts? They couldn’t have legally digitized them if they weren’t in the Public Domain at the time of their digitization, and changing the form of something doesn’t give you the right to claim a copyright, especially on the bits that make the work up. Even stranger, they aren’t just claiming copyright, but including a EULA!

By their use of these ebooks, texts and images, users agree to follow these conditions of use:

  • These ebooks, texts and images may not be used for any commercial purpose without permission from the Electronic Text Center.
  • These ebooks, texts and images may not be re-published in print or electronic form without permission from the Electronic Text Center. However, educators are welcome to print out items and hand them to their students.
  • Users are not permitted to download our ebooks, texts, and images in order to mount them on their own servers for public use or for use by a set of subscribers. Individuals and institutions can, of course, make a link to the copies at UVa, subject to our conditions of use.

Really? Is UVA asserting rights here that they just do not have? Not permitted to republish? Only if there is a copyright concern…which I think that UVA is asserting incorrectly here. It’s possible that there is some piece of copyright law that they are leaning on for these claims, but on the face of it, this seems like over reaching. Can anyone explain to me how they could possible have legitimate copyright claims on things that they didn’t create and are beyond the time limit for copyright protection in the US?

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

5 replies on “Ebooks, copyright, and the University of Virginia”

I’ve used UVA ebooks for MS Reader for some time and I’ve always wondered about the copyright statement. Time was I felt fairly well versed in copyright law, but this one always escaped me. Can UVA claim ANY kind of copyright on a public domain work that they have transformed in some way? Same with Penguin or Oxford University Press for that matter. How much copyright do they hold on a edited version of say, Great Expectations? But I’d rather not get the Oxford UP lawyer’s version of the situation. Some neutral party please explain. Feeling kind of ignorant.

I worked on (proofed and corrected scans performed by someone else) a couple of Louisa May Alcott books for Project Gutenberg about 15 years ago. _Little Men_ went into some sort of limbo, and PG later posted a version produced by a different team. The other, _Flower Fables_, went up fairly promptly on Project Gutenberg, and almost immediately turned up in a number of online sites, though it was still then very early days for electronic books..

University of Virginia apparently thinks they hold copyright on some aspect of their electronic Flower Fables, alas, though at least they give me some credit for having produced the text they turned to TEI. ‘s version (free) still carries the old Project Gutenberg plain vanilla front matter, so also mentions my name.

Lots of other places also now offer _Flower Fables_. Though I didn’t boobytrap the text so I could recognize my work, I’m pretty sure nobody else would be crazy enough to proofread that dweebie text again — most likely all the online versions in whatever format are all built on what John Hamm and I did in 1994, and welcome to it– except that is SELLING even the plain text version. Fictionwise is selling it.

I suppose we can’t really be sure that scanning factories haven’t been at some other copy and that’s what’s being sold.

Not trying to draw conclusions, just following the train of thought you started.

Off the top of my head, here’s what I think they’re up to:
1) they may be trying to get copyright in “their scan / image” of the original – a thin protection that almost certainly doesn’t exist (see Corel v. Bridgeman -> photographs of artwork in PD doesn’t get protection). Alternatively they could be trying to copyright the entire compilation – but again this is a thin protection and doesn’t reach to the underlying works if they’re in the PD, only the arrangement / indexing of them.

But, 2) the EULA is probably valid – it’s an online contract and, at least in DC, MD, and VA (which enacted UCITA) they’re binding.

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