Kessinger and the Public Domain

I would look like a fool (or a GOP presidential hopeful) if in the acknowledgments section of the book I am working on I thanked “the internet and the computers,” but  in some ways a thanks is in order. Much of what I discovered in my research could not have been found without online databases, OCR scans, keyword searches and GoogleBooks. Thanks to ProQuest and historical newspaper databases I was able to uncover the scummy quack/criminal backgrounds of figures that other researchers simply classified as “scientists” or “doctors.” Thanks to GoogleBooks, I was able to recreate a large part of my subject’s personal library (from 1900-1930), by tracing back the quotes he included in his own works.

Much of this is thanks to technology, but it is also thanks to works that have entered the public domain. The public domain works, now no longer encumbered by distance, price or print, almost seem to be part of a utopian, democratic free-flow of information. But, a funny thing happened on the way to free and open access to books that were written over 75 years ago… Kessinger stepped in.

What Kessinger has been doing is taking public domain works, thousands and thousands of them, mostly that have been up on archive.org/GoogleBooks/Hathi Trust, and not only reprinting them, but registering them for themselves, complete with ISBN numbers and sometimes copyrights  from 2007 or 2008! GoogleBooks, probably scared of infringing on anyone’s copyrights (and getting sued), has downgraded the ability to view these works hijacked by Kessinger and even though they are public domain, many are no longer viewable. (Kessinger used to be in Montana, but in recent years has retreated back into its shell. Their current website has no contact information, and it looks like all sales are now funneled through Amazon.com.)

Kessinger advertises themselves as “preserving rare books for the future” and although some titles have been acquired by libraries and made available to the public in that way, it seems more like a disingenuous shell game, making a quick buck of a process being done better and bigger by groups like Google and Archive.org.

Not only does this force people to buy books that were once free and in the public domain, but Kessinger has taken it a creepy step further. They also republish individual chapters from books and sell them as single titles. I was burned once before by this trick, paying $20 through an Amazon vendor for what I thought was a book that slipped past me in my research, only to have a 28 page “book” of zine-like quality show up at my door. (It needs to be said that their reprints are of the lowest quality imaginable, probably churned out assembly-line style. Small books are reprinted with each page on a dwarfing 8.5×11″ sheet, and the covers are uniform and generic, with only the title changing from one reprint to another).

Has anyone else had an encounter with Kessinger reprints or know anything more about them?

Updates:

  • “Poisoning the Public Domain” article from 2009 in The Register (UK), which also uses the great term “copyfraud”: here. (This article also suggests the awful possibility that by getting referral monies from Amazon for Kessinger books purchased on their site, GoogleBooks has little incentive in correcting the copyfraud of Kessinger.)
  • Link to a discussion on a Google forum about Kessinger: here.

-The Filled Slip

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4 responses to “Kessinger and the Public Domain

  1. They also have been known to order rare books from booksellers, scan them, damaging the books in the process, and then try to return the books. I don’t know if this is still going on, but it was a big topic of discussion a few years ago.

  2. giveemthelumber

    true to digital culture form they have turned once-beautiful 19th century books into generic, ugly, and shoddy vehicles of information. it used to be that generic, ugly, and shoddy could be had for a cheap price – not kessinger reprints!

  3. I am at my wits end with this… I’ve lost count of the number of books Google made available to all of us over the past several years, that Kessinger has taken away and is now charging money for. How is this not being discussed and challenged in a larger arena? People need to know this is happening, this company is copyrighting scholarly works from the past few centuries, works that should be freely available for all us to learn from.. which unless I am mistaken was Google’s original intention? The only thing I have thought of so far to start raising awareness of this issue is to post links to articles and blogs such as yours in all of the Customer Review sections of the Amazon pages where they are selling their books.. anyone have any thoughts?

  4. Is anything being done about this? It is really, really annoying! (Note: the link to the Google forum is no longer known by Google.)

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