Arguing Over Copyright While Books Disintegrate

from the that's-not-good dept

Thanks to ongoing perpetual copyright extension (thank you, Michael Eisner and Sonny Bono!) many libraries and museums are distressed to find old books that are still covered by copyright, though long out of print, are literally disintegrating. They want to preserve these books, and digital technology makes that easy. In fact, that’s exactly what Google was trying to help these libraries with, via its Google Library project — the same one that publishers are suing over. While these libraries have asked for special exemptions to copyright law to deal with this issue, it seems to have turned into a huge bureaucratic nightmare, with a special study group made up of both librarians and publishers, who have agreed only to make recommendations when the entire group reaches consensus (meaning, it takes forever to get marginal improvements). Even then, the group is only putting out recommendations to the Librarian of Congress, who would then have to push for legislative change. As Stephen Wildstrom notes in his article about this (linked above):

“Many more books will be gone before anything comes of this…. We have a copyright system designed in the 19th century with a bit of flavoring from the 20th, governing a reality where the existence of digital media is revolutionizing the very concept of content and protection.”

It’s a shame. Draconian copyright is erasing large portions of our past literary achievements.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Arguing Over Copyright While Books Disintegrate”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
some random guy says:

goodbye books?

I can feel my books rotting on the shelf, even as you speak. Seriously… with the proper care, books can last for hundreds of years. Even if only one copy survives past the copyright date, it can be scanned in. Also, how about scanning them in and saving them until copyright expires, just in case all the physical copies miraculously go *poof* before that date? The publishers are just saying don’t put them online for free for everyone to see.

Anonymous of Course says:

Re: Re: goodbye books?

Many old books were expensive, so yes, of
course they were made to last. The penny
sheets decomposed just as the modern
paperbacks do.

Today you can buy printed to order copies
of old text books on acid free paper, for
a price, thanks to modern technology

I have a biography of Michael Faraday that’s
about 137 years old. It looked like a brand
new book until the dog chewed the cover off
of it.

Nothing lasts forever. But acid free paper,
properly stored, is the next best thing to
stone tablets.

transit60 says:

Re: Re: Physical books need to be done away with a

I love technology and I love to read, but the older I get, the more I realize that I don’t want the two combined. I have a pretty decent monitor that I use all day at work, but when reading for pleasure, the pages of an actual book do a much better job of relaxing my eyes.

BTR1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Physical books need to be done away wi

Same for me. There’s a certain tactile pleasure in reading a good book that enhances the experience and the nicer the book, the greater the pleasure.

There was an exchange between two characters on the “Buffy” show (one a computer enthusiast and the other an old-fashioned librarian) that summed up the issue nicely:

Honestly, what is it about computers that bothers you so much?

The smell.

Computers don’t smell, Rupert.

I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell– musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is… it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be… smelly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Physical books need to be done away with a

A digital reader of some sort would alleviate this problem. They’ve been around for awhile. And you wouldn’t have to worry about going to the library just to find out that the book you want is checked out. There would be infinite copies… and you wouldn’t actually have to go to the library, because there would no longer be a need for a public library building. The building would be a real cost saving, although I’m sure the publishers would still charge as much for a digital copy of a book, as opposed to a physical copy. And they would probably charge a fee for each “check-out” initially.

Rick Sarvas says:

Is this preservation really the issue here?

If I recall correctly, the prevailing copyright issues only prevent the distribution of the resulting book scans, not the actual act of scanning a book . I would think that if I have a book I could turn it into, for example, a PDF file for my own personal use so long as I do not distribute or allow others to access the file, right? “Fair Use” should apply here (at least in the USA). If so, a library should be able to scan any book in their collection so long as they retain the original physical book in the same way that I can make and use a series on MP3s of any CD I own – as long as I continue to own the original CD.

As to who would be able to get access to those scanned book files, I can’t say, but at least the book in question would be preserved in electronic format until this part of copyright law could be eventually worked out or amended.

Overcast says:

The publishers are just saying don’t put them online for free for everyone to see.

Odd… I could go to the library and check out almost any book I own – for free.

Hmm, doesn’t seem right that I would go buy a book if I can just check out a copy for free, huh?

Weird – with that logic, you think libraries would have run the publishing industry out of business long ago. Free books… seriously – that’s crazy!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Books don't necessarily last

– Books don’t necessarily last.
– Books made with top quality materials and top quality workmanship last. Top quality being defined as materials and workmanship designed for longevity
– On th other hand, most books (i.e. paperback and cardboard/cloth covered) aren’t designed for longevity. After all, the publisher would be delighted for you to buy another copy of a deteriorating volume. If that volume weren’t available, so what, buy another.
– I have some first edition paperbacks by favorite authors. They are falling apart (glue failure) and yellowing (acid). They range from 20 to 40 years. I cared for them fairly well as long as I’ve had them.
– Thus a lot of excellent literature is disappearing on account of short term greed.

deadzone (profile) says:

I don't understand it

It seems like the copyright holders would rather the old publications are lost forever rather than allowing them to be legitimately backed up digitally. What kind of logic is this?

They still retain their precious copyrights even if the books are digitized and they can go on their merry way and sue everybody for copyright infringement just like all of the other short-sighted and dying companies like the RIAA/MPAA do. Heck, maybe they can team up and get pointers from the RIAA/MPAA on the best way to go about suing people stupid enough to want what they own copyrights of!

Regardless, it seems to me like the author is not in any way making sweeping exaggerations or hyperbole, and certainly not fear-mongering.

Well, I could be wrong about the fear-mongering I suppose.

It stands to reason that a person who views the complete and total loss of historical literary works due to stupid bureaucracies and draconian copyright law as merely “fear mongering” then they really don’t care about literature anyway so of course there will be no “fear” about the loss.

Pretty clear cut article – back up the books digitally or lose them forever due to the natural process of decay – it’s the copyright holders call.

Heck, I guess they could re-write them by hand or even bust out a typewriter and do it themselves if they were so inclined. Just do something before they are lost completely.

SpacePope says:


My comment was specifically targeting the unsupported (and likely unsuportable) comment:

“…erasing large portions of our past literary achievements”

How large is the portion at risk of total loss? Is it really a meaningful portion? Are you sure the decaying copy at the local library is really the “last” copy?

I’m am very much in favor of digitizing every printed word ever. And I absolutley agree that the nonesense being spewed by copyright eternalists is doing everyone more harm than good. But this blog is a consistent source of even handed logical agruments and it should remain as such if it intends to remain useful.

Powerkor says:

people will copy books digitally with or without legal right to do so, like music, this will be no different.

It would, however, be nice to see something formal and standardized like a library that is digitalized… but its not nessessary.

People will go underground long before the legalities are in play. Its happened with the freedom of slaves, its happened with alcohol (prohibition) and still happens with music and gambling.

You can stop people from actually doing this, but the intitutions will be affected and slowed into coming into the digital age. Whens the last time anyone went to a library? I’m not a researcher by no means, but wiki is good enough 90% of the time.

I do agree that libraries need a push into the new age. Stop filling your pockets and start revitalizing our literary works. Thanks.

Benjie says:

They should just pass a law stating that if *any* book is ‘lost’ because of any bureaucratic problems, that *each* person involved with said book and laws surrounding the loss of the book, because of the book not being archived, shall be held fully responsible for the loss of a book for the generations of people from now until the end of civilization.
The punishment should be horrible enough that no one would dare not find a way for these books to be digitally archived and safely stored.
The safe storage of these books are much higher priority than copyright infringments

sum dum gai says:

Re: Re:

Will your law apply to Harlequin Romances?

The copyright is on the content of the book, not the book itself. Traditionally, the physical book was the means of copyright enforcement from “common” copying, not much protection from a bootleg publishing company.

Older books were expensive, very old books were hand written. Regardless of how old, how well made, etc., the content must be preserved without judgment of its value. No savvy librarian would hesitate at scanning an endangered book to preserve the content. The disintegrated remains is proof of ownership of *use* of the digitized content (buying a book does not give you ownership of the content). If Ted Turner did this, he would OCR the text, change the font and copyright the new version.

Clueby4 says:

Old way - Public benefit

When they changed the way copyright worked, automatic protection, it essentially removed one of the most important responsibilities of the copyright holder. Which was to provide the public (libraries) with copies of the work.

In my opinion, that’s when copyright was corrupted, the whole point of copyright was to be an incentive to produce creative works for the public benefit, not a never ending revenue stream and/or dubious means legal intimidation. Without this component copyright works will most definitely be lost since there is no reason and no established procedure for preserving it, and most importantly the core reason for copyright is not achieved.

I really think they need re-introduce this requirement somehow. Perhaps make the public copy a requirement before you can bring legal action. Or perhaps modify copyright, that if the work isn’t REASONABLY available to the public the copyright is voided.

Greg says:

copyright/old books

While I DO believe strongly in copyright, I also believe in some exceptions. For instance, I had access to a Disney safety film that kids loved. It was shown so much in a large school system that it was literally falling apart. Disney no longer makes the film and we couldn’t change it’s form to cd, etc., because copyright laws didn’t allow it, even though we had purchased a copy.

If Disney or others wan to keep copyrights, they need to produce more copies or “get off the pot.”

Greg Smith

DanC says:

Re: Re:

oh please – its a few books that most likely noone will ever read, ever.

And so, in your opinion, these books deserve to disappear? Because they don’t appeal to a wide audience, these books should not be kept available? You are encouraging ignorance through your own.

Passive destruction of knowledge is no more acceptable than active destruction.

Dani says:

Re: Re:

Just because you wouldn’t be interested in reading the books doesn’t mean nobody would be. It’s as much as for the protection of an integral part of our past society and culutre as it is for mere “pleasure-reading”.

Would you let the Declaration of Independence rot just because not everyone reads it everyday or because we can readily find other digital copies or transcripts of it? No, probably not. Would you get rid of a broken piece of pottery in a museum just because it is broken? No, it has some worth. It provides some evidence of a time forgotten. Chances are these are not just any books. The article is not specific, but I imagine they have some worth.

Maybe they are completely mindless texts, maybe they are in different languages, maybe you don’t care, but they are still books, they are still a link to something from our past. I personally believe we should preserve “relics” from our past as best as we are able to.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Of Old Books and their Scarcity

To Some Random Guy, #1

You obviously don’t have very much experience of books, not of thousands of books, at any rate. When you have thousands of books, you inevitably wind up doing a certain amount of your own rebinding. Effectively, you do all the things a professional librarian does, only not quite so often.

To: Anonymous Coward, #6

You are correct that cheap paperbacks used to be printed on acidic paper, the same stuff that was used for newspapers. As the paper ages, it turns brown, and gets brittle. Sometimes the ink from the other side of the page bleeds through. If you sniff an acidifying book, you will notice a sort of salty smell, as if you were at the beach. The reaction seems to take place faster along the rubber binding, and often pages come loose. You will often find the various symptoms in a book printed circa 1960. I’ve had _fairly_ good results by just stripping of the broken-up rubber binding with my fingernails, compressing the pages in a vise, and applying a layer of a product known as Sobo Glue, a kind of latex-modified white glue. Give it a day or two to set, before opening the vice. I have some things which I bound with Sobo twenty-some years ago, and the binding has held up pretty well.

I don’t collect signed editions myself, but as a working scholar, I do collect “oddities.” For example, I have a little pocket handbook of electrical engineering, published in 1908 by International Correspondence Schools. I suppose it was a “freebie.” The flyleaf and the reply coupon, filled in but not detached, bear the name of one Isidore Dombrow, a seventeen-year-old electrician’s apprentice who was living in Brooklyn. By the name, he must have been Russian-American. The book is rather tattered, as one might expect. One has the vision of this earnest kid, probably a political anarchist, carrying a technical manual around in his overall pocket on the job, reading whenever he had a free moment. I bought the book about fifteen years ago in a thrift shop for two dollars. Angry Dude wants to burn all my books. I wonder why? Could it be that the wisdom of the past shows him for what he is?

A lot of things were never printed in hardbound editions because they were more or less disreputable. Out of an edition of a thousand paperbacks, nine hundred might have been carried around in pants pockets and sat upon. The kind of people who bought them were also the kind of people who might tear out pages and use them to roll home-made cigarettes. It is quite common for there to be cases where only one or two copies have survived.

There are other possibilities. One of the major tobacco companies once published cigar advertisements, back in the late 19th century, showing a crocodile about to eat a small black child, maybe about two or three years old, with the legend, if I recall rightly, of: “a tasty morsel.” Naturally the company wants to use copyright to suppress this.

Another point: for doing serious research, you need a big library, of a million volumes or more. Five million is better. The internet is a godsend, of course, but, due to copyright, it has certain systematic blind points. Not all cities have big paper libraries. Even when they do, the cities are often large enough that getting to the library is inconvenient. The number of copyrighted worked should be kept down to what a truly local library, eg. a high school library, can afford to stock. If the government has to buy up copyrights and place them in the public domain, so be it. The government is paying already– it is just that the publishers manage to collect government money while restricting the availability of the books in question. Just to cite one obvious tangible public benefit, it would become easier to find prior art for bogus patents.

some random guy says:

Re: Of Old Books and their Scarcity

Good points. I don’t have 1000’s of books. But I was responding to the initial fear-mongering post that our culture will disappear because our physical books are going to vanish unless copyright is amended to let google put them online.

I am all for online books. In fact, it would greatly ease the bookkeeping involved (smile) to maintain a library or serious collection. I’d even like them all to be googleable, so I could have all of written knowledge at my fingertips. But those are different issues than “OMG, our books are vaporizing but our hands are tied by copyright law”.

Dani says:

Re: Re: Of Old Books and their Scarcity

Online books are fine and dandy, but are much less “user-friendly” as an earlier post pointed out.

I don’t know about you, but I go to college. Although it would be amusing to watch, and I’m sure students would be in better shape, it is not possible to go carrying around a desktop computer just so you can read up for your next class. And I’d be hardpressed to highlight an online copy of a book for some personal notes.

Yes, online books are convenient and at times better options. But they are not practical for everyday use.

Chiropetra says:

Books Don't Last Forever

Contrary to @1 most books won’t last for hundreds of years.

Some of them, especially those more than 200 years old, will last because of t he way they are made. I have a framed leaf in my collection with was printed in the 1500s and it is still in excellent condition.

But the vast majority of what has been printed since about 1880 is doomed without special and expensive conservation efforts. This isn’t just paperbacks — although I have a lot of 30 and 40 year old paperbacks that are disintegrating. Hardbound books, especially those printed between 1900 and 1950 are crumbling as well.

The biggest problem is the cheap paper the books were printed on is full of sulfur, which turns to acid, which eats away at the books.

So yes, it’s a very real problem.

lingeriewholesale (user link) says:

the prevailing copyright issues only prevent

the prevailing copyright issues only prevent the distribution of the resulting book scans, not the actual act of scanning a book . I would think that if I have a book I could turn it into, for example, Wholesale Lingerie a PDF file for my own personal use so long as I do not distribute or allow others to access the file, right? “Fair Use” should apply here (at least in the USA). If so, a library should be able to scan any book

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »