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Turning out-of-copyright books into gold: An interview with University of Michigan’s Maria Bonn

Minow: By the time copyright expires in a book, the book is often forgotten.  The University of Michigan , however, just inked a deal with Amazon to bring some 400,000 old titles back to life.  How does the library determine that a book is out of copyright?

Bonn:  First, we are really excited about this special opportunity to extend access to our collections and to connect our users with the information that they need. Since 2004, we have had about 10,000 19th and early 20th century books in reprint, and we know that they are widely appreciated. While our digitization efforts are intended to create greater online access, it’s a happy by-product that it also enables greater print access.

But to answer your question about copyright: On determining copyright status:  right now we are being fairly conservative in our copyright judgments. Keep in mind that these volumes are only for sale in the United States, so we are guided by U.S. copyright law. We run an automated analysis on the MARC records to identify all volumes published prior to 1923 and most U.S. government publications. After this analysis, he bibliographic information is sorted by publication date and undergoes a quick manual review to check for obvious errors or bibliographic oddities (such as a record for a book that asserted it had been published in 1099). These volumes are removed from the POD (Print On Demand) stream. There is a wealth of material that is relatively easy for us to identify as public domain, and these are the books that we are currently working on getting out into the world. There are many other books that are probably also public domain but we’ll need to do a more nuanced analysis in order to make that determination.

If we extend our arrangements with POD printers and distributors to allow for sale of books in other countries (we already have that option for the U.K and Germany, but have not acted on it), we will need to construct a similar process of analysis taking into account the copyright laws of the countries in which we are selling the books.

We are also in the midst of an effort funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to develop an efficient way to check the copyright renewal records for books published between 1923 and 1963.  As we identify books that have risen into the public domain, we will add them to our reprint program.

Minow: Readers can purchase the reprints directly from University of Michigan or from Amazon.  How does the revenue sharing model compare with the proposed Books Rights Registry that would be created if the Google settlement goes through? Does UM make a profit?

Bonn: I don’t know enough of the details of the settlement to say exactly how it compares. It is different in that the settlement is intended to address in-copyright works and we are only selling public domain materials.  

This arrangement with Amazon is essentially an efficient and effective way of doing large-scale fulfillment. After all of our costs of producing the books are recovered, we will split what we anticipate to be modest profits with Google.  Our share of these profits will be used to support the activities of the University Library, especially our digitization efforts. We hope to make a little money along the way, but the relationship with Amazon is mainly about having a quick way to get print copies into the hands of people who want them.

I should remind everybody that all of these works are currently online for free in HathiTrust ( We already create reprints of these books on our Espresso Book Machine (, but this arrangement allows us to do fulfillment on a much greater scale.  

It is really rewarding seeing the way in which people connect with our books. About 26,000 titles actually became available on Amazon this week, and we see people buying copies of The Adventures of Mabel (a turn of the century children’s book), 19th century editions of Shakespeare, a guide to walking by Henry David Thoreau and Swedenborg’s ruminations on Heaven and Its Wonders. We can only speculate on why and how these books find their readers, but as you might suspect from librarians, we’re very happy to be facilitating that connection.


Maria Bonn
is the Director of the University of Michigan’s Scholarly Publishing Office.  She is responsible for the production of electronic books and journals and for broadly developing the role of the Library in scholarly communication.

Mary Minow is the content editor for the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use website.