I have today received what is possibly one of the most depressing emails that I have seen in many years. It’s a threatening email from someone I’ve never heard of. He says that he is the moderator of the CCEL site. He wants to know why I’m “selling their work” (i.e. including an old public domain version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers files from their site on my CDROM of the Additional Fathers) and tells me that I’ll “be hearing from our business office”.
What makes this depressing is the origin of it; the CCEL. I suppose that this could be a hoax, but I have my doubts. If genuine, it marks the passing of one of the champions and pioneers of open access online.
As far as I knew, the files and their contents are public domain in every jurisdiction in the world. But who will feel able to use them freely — include them in CDROM’s, as I have done, or any other form of distribution — if they get threats when they do?
When I first came onto the internet in 1997, the presence at CCEL of the 38-volume collection of the fathers, freely copyable by anyone, was a shining example to us all. It was all public domain, and everyone could do anything they wanted with it. This led to a burst of imitative sites, and was the direct inspiration for everything that I have done online myself in the Tertullian Project and the Additional Fathers.
But times have changed. If this email is right, it seems that it is dwindling into another commercial site, with emphasis on its ‘rights’, on control, on owning, licensing. A look at the fresh new copyright notice on its site makes that clear.
I’ve written to Harry Plantinga, founder of the CCEL, to query this one. But whatever he replies, the direction in which the CCEL is going seems all too clear. Stupidly enough, 10 years after a public domain version of the ANF appeared online, we may need to create one again, whose copyright status as public domain is clear and unassailable. I think also of those who gave their time freely to help produce the current, version 3, of the ANF etc.
One measure I have taken is to remove a couple of items from the Additional Fathers whose copyright status is profoundly unclear, since they were published in Egypt at a time when that country had no copyright law at all. After all, I don’t want to get a threatening letter in a few years time demanding money. Who benefits from this, tho, I don’t know. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Update 21/8/7:Harry has intervened, and the threat has gone away for now. Only the version 3 files and their derivatives are claimed to be in copyright; and that only so that there is a revenue stream from commercial publishers to keep the site alive after he moves on or retires or whatever. I’m still discussing this with the CCEL.