This article is Part 1 of a 4 part series on opening content in HathiTrust.

Nearly 40% of the digitized volumes in the HathiTrust Digital Library are available for users in the United States to read online because they are either in the public domain or opened for access via a Creative Commons license. While this is a significant amount of available content, using HathiTrust can prove frustrating when a desired resource is only available for search and not reading. This restriction usually occurs because a volume has been initially assessed as protected by copyright. 

There are over 17.5 million volumes in the HathiTrust repository, and it is impossible to do an individual copyright review of each one. Because of this, HathiTrust relies upon a computer-executed algorithm to make rights determinations by checking the volume’s accompanying metadata for publication year, country, and US federal government document status. However, the algorithm makes broad rights and access determinations and is unable to make the nuanced copyright determinations that require human review.

Examples of rules followed by the HathiTrust rights algorithm:

  • Works published in the United States more than 95 years ago, or outside the US more than 125 years ago, are assumed to be in the public domain worldwide (rights code = PD) and are available for full view anywhere in the world.
  • Works published outside the US between 95 and 125 years ago are considered to be in the public domain in the US (rights code = PDUS) and are available for full view in the US.
  • Federal government documents (with some exceptions described in the next article) are considered to be in the public domain worldwide (PD) and are available for full view worldwide.
  • Works published less than 95 years ago, or with missing or incorrect metadata, are treated as in copyright and only available for search.

Unlike the HathiTrust algorithm, a human reviewer can check to see if a volume met the copyright formalities that used to be required under US law. If a work didn’t meet those formalities, its copyright was lost and the work fell into the public domain. For example, a work is likely in the public domain if:

  • It was published in the US before 1978 without a copyright notice. (A copyright notice generally includes the word “copyright” or symbol “©”  followed by the copyright date and name of the rights holder.)
  • It was published in the US before 1964 and its copyright was not renewed with the copyright office 28 years after it was published.
  • It was published in the US before 1989 without a copyright notice, and not subsequently registered with the copyright office within 5 years.

Volumes like this may often be opened as public domain. However, if the volume contains additional copyrighted information (such as illustrations, photographs, reprinted articles, or sections contributed by multiple authors), it cannot be opened for access.

Chances are, if you want access to a HathTrust volume that was published more recently than 1963, it is likely in copyright and you should try to get access to it from somewhere other than HathiTrust, such as through a physical loan or via ILL. This is also true for volumes published outside of the United States after 1925. However, if you are interested in accessing a HathiTrust volume published in the US before 1964, a volume published in the United States before 1978 without a copyright notice, a US federal government document, or a volume described by missing or incorrect metadata, read on - there is a chance it could be opened for access.

There are 3 potential paths for opening content in HathiTrust: remedying missing or malformed metadata, human copyright review of individual volumes, and using HathiTrust’s Creative Commons Declaration Form

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