November 14, 2003

StoryCorps copyright?

StoryCorps looks really interesting. Their "storybooth" in Grand Central Station went live on Oct. 23, according to their website. And the five (streaming MP3) samples that they've put up are charming.

But from their website, I can't tell what the IPR (intellectual property rights) for the recorded stories will be. They say that the recordings will be deposited in the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, but that doesn't tell us anything about who owns them and what sort of distribution licenses will be offered. Given the general approach of the project, I should think that some sort of Creative Commons license would be appropriate. If so, why not say so?

StoryCorps' founder, Dave Isay, is best known for his work for NPR, but this is not necessarily a good sign from the point of view of IPR openness. At the LDC, we've been engaged for some years in trying to mediate access for the research community to archives of audio material, including broadcast stuff. And NPR has been one of the very tightest and least cooperative of the organizations that we've dealt with, to the point that we've basically given up trying to get permissions from them for anything. By comparison, we've done fine with broadcasters such as ABC and CNN (and among non-profits PRI).

My own current guess is that StoryCorps plans to hold the copyrights and to sell various products from their archives to generate revenue, as NPR does. That's their right, but if it's their intent, they should let people know. I feel that these questions are particularly relevant because StoryCorps says that:

We've modeled StoryCorps—in spirit and in scope—after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s, through which oral-history interviews with everyday Americans across the country were recorded. These recordings remain the single most important collection of American voices gathered to date. We hope that StoryCorps will build and expand on that work, becoming a WPA for the 21st Century.

FYI, here is the website for the WPA's Folklore Project archives. What the Library of Congress says about copyright on these materials is:

The Library of Congress is not aware of any copyright in the documents in this collection. As far as is known, the documents were written by U.S. Government employees. Generally speaking, works created by U.S. Government employees are not eligible for copyright protection in the United States, although they may be under copyright in some foreign countries. The persons interviewed or whose words were transcribed were generally not employees of the U.S. Government. Privacy and publicity rights may apply.

But StoryCorps is NOT a government project. Even less than NPR is.

[Note: the American Folklife Center's press release says that "The Library’s folklife specialists will be responsible for ensuring that the collection is preserved in digital form, appropriately indexed and cataloged, and then made accessible to the public at the American Folklife Center and on the Library’s Web site at" But this doesn't tell us things like whether the transcripts will be available and indexed, whether the audio will be downloadable or just available in streaming form, whether others will be able to get their own copy of (all or part of) the collection, for research or for novel interactive applications (such as a concordance), whether DRM of some future kind will or won't be involved, etc. etc. An appropriate Creative Commons license would implicitly settle these questions in a general way.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 14, 2003 06:58 AM