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[Comments] (7) Copyright Question: This is almost certainly a dumb question that I already know the answer to, but I'm in the position of the economist in the joke who ignores the $20 bill on the ground because if was really there, someone would have already picked it up.

I really like old catalogs like the Sears catalog, and for years I've waited for the day when someone would put them online. And then I waited a few more years. And then a few more years. And now I'm starting to think that it's not going to happen unless I do something about it. So what to do? Obviously the original catalogs are out of copyright, and in fact there's a cottage industry in putting out facsimiles. This cottage industry thrives to the extent that you can't reliably find original catalogs on auction sites even if there are any, because sellers stupidly or maliciously label their reprints as original.

So, can I buy a facsimile, scan the catalog pages (not the cover or newly-copyrighted introductory material), and put the scans online? Could I act as a private-sector Carl Malamud, buy a CD full of scans, and just dump them on a web site? I suspect the answer is yes. BUT. None of these facsimiles are complete copies! Most of them omit hundreds of pages from the original catalogs. This is 1) annoying and unsatisfying, and 2) makes the facsimile into a derivative work.

So, the editorial work that went into deciding which pages to keep and which to not, is that a part of the derivative work that can be copyrighted? It doesn't add anything new to the work, but clearly some work went into it. My traditional five seconds of research indicates that only original "material" can be copyrighted, and that a decision about what to leave out isn't "material". Is this right?

My backup question is why no one else has done this, apart from it being a big job. Many less interesting, equally long public domain documents have been digitized, which makes me think there's some subtle copyright problem I don't see.

There are a number of (mostly Canadian) old catalogs at the Internet Archive, including this cool sucker.


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