Wednesday, June 30, 2004

One Example of Why Indefinite Copyright is a Bad Idea

A languagehat post informs us that a comprehensive Jewish Encyclopedia published at the start of the 20th century has just come online.

This website contains the complete contents of the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia, which was originally published between 1901-1906. The Jewish Encyclopedia, which recently became part of the public domain, contains over 15,000 articles and illustrations.

This online version contains the unedited contents of the original encyclopedia. Since the original work was completed almost 100 years ago, it does not cover a significant portion of modern Jewish History (e.g., the creation of Israel, the Holocaust, etc.). However, it does contain an incredible amount of information that is remarkably relevant today.
If Disney and the other media companies had their way, nothing of the world's cultural heritage from the 1920s on would ever become freely available to the public. Who knows just how many forgotten or little-known gems remain locked away in dusty archives because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act? There's a fine line between protecting intellectual property to encourage creativity and sheer rent-seeking for the sake of it.

Those with an interest in the history of writing will likely be interested in this detailed article on the process by which the modern Hebrew characters arose from the ancient Phoenician script. One thing to keep in mind when reading the article is that there's been tremendous progress in the state of knowledge since it was originally written - to give just one example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls wouldn't occur until 1947 - and as such it cannot be taken as an authoritative survey of the topic. Having said that much, the majority of the material in the article seems to have held up fairly well despite the passage of an entire century.