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Copyright Society to reprint out-of-print texts

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Orphaned academic works will be reprinted in small quantities under a partnership launched by the China Written Works Copyright Society on February 24.

As announced by a small item in the February 28 edition of the China Press and Publishing Journal, the Society, the China Printing Group Corporation Digital Printing Company, and the Beijing Hanwen Diancang Culture Company signed a licensing agreement to bring limited-edition reproductions of out-of-print academic books to university libraries.

Covered by the agreement are “out of print books possessing research, reference, or collectible value,” primarily in the humanities, and originally published between 1949 and 2005. The rationale: “Reportedly, more than half of the books published in China every year, specialty academic books for niche audiences in particular, circulate only briefly before going out of print.” Additionally, university libraries have significant gaps in their collections “for various reasons,” and this project would help fill those gaps.

“The Copyright Society will utilize its advantageous position to obtain the permission of the works’ copyright holders, the China Printing Group will provide the project with printing support, and the Beijing Hanwen Diancang Culture Company will be responsible for handling orders from universities. The three parties said that they would endeavor to comply with copyright laws and regulations and would explore avenues through which a large quantity of out-of-print academic books could be provided as needed on a print-on-demand basis.”

Zhang Hongbo, a deputy director-general of the Copyright Society (中国文字著作权协会), said that the Society’s role would be to remit royalties to copyright holders and to keep reprint numbers “under 200 copies per title,” according to the China Culture Daily, which ran its own report the following day.

The articles went largely unnoticed upon publication (who reads CP&PJ, anyway?), but microbloggers picked it up a day or two ago and began debating whether the Copyright Society had the authority to reprint old texts.

University libraries that do have rare titles in their collections will run off photocopies for a fee, and a number of private companies do a thriving trade in copied editions of out-of-print titles, selling their wares through used book forums like Kongfz. However, the prospect of a large-scale copying effort spearheaded by an organization supposedly devoted to protecting the interests of copyright holders made some publishers uneasy.

Shi Hongjun of the Century Publishing Group posted updates to his microblog that accused the Society of overstepping its authority and raised questions about the legitimacy of their plan under China’s current regulatory environment:

2011.03.07, 09:17: Can academic texts be copied at will without the publisher being informed? According to the first page of the February 28 edition of China Press and Publishing Journal, the China Written Works Copyright Society, a printing agency, and a private bookseller will copy a large quantity of out-of-print academic texts from 1949 through 2005. Why does it seem like they’re shutting out social science publishers? Isn’t this sort of book printing, without publisher participation, illegal? I solicit your opinions...

2011.03.07, 23:49: Since you’ve taken so many things for granted, it looks as though I’ve got to put out some common sense. The copyright for a printed book is a complex thing. Although the publisher may no longer possess the exclusive right of publication, it may still retain the following copyrights: cover design, interior design, textual edits, and illustration edits. If you eliminate the publisher and simply photocopy the book, you’ve got big problems. This is an entirely separate issue than the scheduled reversion of rights.

2011.03.07, 23:54: Additionally, according to publishing norms, to improve quality and timeliness, publishers are required to re-submit a book for review when it is reprinted. The publishing agency I work for has always worked in this way. When you copy these books, who will assume responsibility for the re-approval work that ought to be undertaken by the publisher?

Shi’s comments prompted The Beijing News to run a report on the situation that quoted him further:

The main problem is that the Copyright Society ought to serve its members. If it engages in this, it shouldn’t route around the publishers and enter into a for-profit commercial partnership. First, it ought to solicit publishers’ opinions and see whether they will re-issue those books. If they will not, then the Copyright Society can consider other areas. Otherwise, what happens if you just photocopy a book at will? Everyone knows that library book sourcing is chaos.

Zhang Hongbo told the newspaper that Shi’s objections were based on a misunderstanding of the partnership. Copyright law would be observed by first asking for permission before going ahead with any reproductions. Design and other copyrights expire after ten years, so the complicated copyright situation would only exist for works published between 2000 and 2005, for which a list of titles has yet to be drawn up.

Finally, he explained that the money involved was minimal: several dozen copies of each title, with the Society taking between 10 and 20 percent, so “it’s basically for public service.”

Last year, when the Copyright Society went up against Google over the Internet giant’s book digitization program, Zhang was frequently quoted in the Chinese press defending authors’ rights. Although Google Books is not mentioned in any of the reports on the current partnership, by stressing their intent to consult copyright holders beforehand, Zhang distinguishes his operation from Google’s “scan first and compensate later” approach.

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