The Great Digitization Or The Great Betrayal?

from the so-what-exactly-are-libraries-for? dept

One of the great tasks facing humanity today is digitizing the world's books and liberating the huge stores of knowledge they contain. The technology is there scanners are now relatively fast and cheap but the legal framework is struggling to keep up. That can be seen in the continuing uncertainty hovering over Google's massive book scanning project. It can also be observed in some recent digitization projects like Cambridge University's Digital Library:

Over the course of six centuries Cambridge University Library's collections have grown from a few dozen volumes into one of the world's great libraries, with an extraordinary accumulation of books, maps, manuscripts and journals. These cover every conceivable aspect of human endeavour, spanning most of the world's cultural traditions. While parts of the Library's manuscript collections have already been published in print, microfilm and digital formats, we are now building a substantial online resource so that our collections can be much more accessible to students, researchers and the wider public.
That's obviously a highly laudable aim. But the strict terms and conditions are not so praiseworthy:
Subject to statutory allowances, extracts of the Content and University Material from the site may be accessed, downloaded and printed for your personal and non-commercial use and you may draw the attention of others within your organisation to material posted on the site. Unless explicitly licensed or permitted by us, you may not:
use any part of the Content or University Material on the site for direct or indirect commercial purposes or advantage without obtaining a licence to do so from the University or its licensors

modify or alter the paper or digital copies of any Content or University Material printed off or downloaded in any way

sell, resell, license, transfer, transmit, display in any form, perform, hire, lease or loan any Content or University Material in whole or in part printed or downloaded from the site

systematically extract and/or re-utilise substantial parts of the Content or University Material from the site

create and/or publish your own database that features substantial parts of this site.
If you print, copy, download or use any part of the site in breach of these terms of use, your right to use the site will cease immediately and you must at the option of the University return or destroy any copies of the material you have made.
One of the jewels of the Cambridge University Digital Library is a collection of Newton's scientific papers. So far, a selection of important mathematical works from the 1660s has been digitized. These date are from well before the first modern copyright act, the 1710 Statute of Anne. So it's an interesting question -- what is the copyright situation of these papers and their digitized images?

Assuming that copyright dates from the "fixing" of the work, or from the date of the Statute of Anne, they would clearly have passed into the public domain long ago. One technique that libraries have tried to employ in order to maintain their control is to claim that the act of digitizing creates a new copyright, although this seems dubious. After all, the whole point of digitization is to capture as faithfully as possible the physical appearance of a text: an artistic interpretation of that physical appearance would defeat the object of the exercise. But without that artistic element there seems to be no grounds for claiming copyright.

Moreover, even if there were copyright in the digitized image, it's hard to see how there is any basis for stopping people from transcribing the text, since that is undoubtedly in the public domain. But that's precisely what Cambridge University is trying to do in its conditions quoted above.

At least the Cambridge University Digital Library allows "personal and non-commercial use" for free; the British Library's new British Newspaper Archive doesn't even permit that:

The index of the newspaper archives featured on the website can be searched for free, from any location. If you are using the website in premises owned or operated by the British Library, you can view the images of the newspapers themselves for free also. If you are using the website anywhere else and want to view the images of the newspaper archive or use some features of the website you will need to buy either a Credit Package or a Subscription. You have to register with us and be signed in to buy credits or a subscription.
Here's what the British Newspaper Archive encompasses:
The British Library's newspaper collections are among the finest in the world, containing most of the runs of newspapers published in the UK since 1800.

The scale of the newspaper publishing industry from the early 19th century onwards is enormous, with many cities and towns publishing several newspapers simultaneously, often aimed at distinct audiences depending on social status, geographical location and political affiliation. The first stage of this project focuses on runs published before 1900 and will include titles from cities such as Birmingham, Derby, Manchester, Nottingham, Norwich, Leeds and York, along with local titles from London boroughs.
Clearly, most of that material will be in the public domain. But as a result of this digitization project, the British Library is actually removing physical access to some of its public domain holdings, replacing it with virtual access through images it claims are under copyright:
We have even scanned single pages more than two feet wide! These publications are now not available for public view or access through the Library's reading rooms; however, they will be available to view on this website.
And to those who say that digitization costs money, and that those costs must be recouped in some way, consider this: holding books in a library, and making them available to the public, costs money too, but that did not prevent the great libraries of the past from providing access to their holdings for free. Those trail-blazing institutions knew that charging people to read would have been a negation of their central role in making knowledge freely available to all. And so it is today: a key part of the modern library ought to be making digital knowledge available to all, without charge, and without limitations.

This current trend to limit access to digitized versions of public domain materials is a real betrayal of the original mission of public libraries like the British Library. These made possible the opening up knowledge to huge numbers of ordinary people who otherwise would never been able to access these materials. Today's massive digitization projects, which ought to be building on and extending that great tradition, are actually reversing it by seeking to take texts out of the public domain and charge for access to them. That's not just a shame, it's a scandal.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: copyright, digitization, public domain, uk


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  1. icon
    pkgesic (profile), 2 Jan 2012 @ 11:46am

    Is that you really mean?

    Hi all, I'm a newbie and I pretty much joined the site because of this thread. So hello, nice to meet you all, but I'm a tad confused.

    To start with, I think the libraries trying to enforce copyright on perfect reproductions of out of copyright material is doomed to failure. How can they claim creativity? So whatever they are claiming now, it won't hold against a legal challenge unless the law is changed. IMHO. Of course with the current, 'oh god the piracy, we have to do something about the piracy, lets criminalise the entire nation', attitude towards digital content, who knows what will happen?

    But some of the other comments relating to copyright confused me. Copyright protects the artist not the corporation. Unless the artist was on a work-for-hire contract, or stupidly signed over all the rights to their original work to a company, the rights remain with the artist and they generate income from them, which allows them to create other works of art.

    Corporations may well take advantage of copyright, but that is not the purpose of copyright. This is about individual artists retaining control of their work, it is not about corporate suits enforcing copyright to make more money.

    Individual artistic copyright lasts for the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years in the UK. If it is a collaborative piece (like a film) it lasts for the lifetime plus 70 years of a fairly narrow group of people (director, writer, and so on; I think the producer is included, but can't be bothered to check). 70 year after the last one dies the copyright ends. Something that is created anonymously has a copyright period of (something like) 50 years from first publication.
    That sets out my sketchy knowledge of the law, so lets get down to talking about my confusion.

    I can see how certain aspects of corporate copyright could upset people, milking it, I think was the term used. But a few people seem to think that weakening copyright somehow helps the artist and sticks it to the man. I don't understand that at all.

    JarHead seems to think that it is all about the money. That if you are dead why do you need to keep receiving royalties. Well, you may not need to receive royalties when you are dead, but what if you die immediately after finishing the work and your family needs the money you were going to earn to pay off debts you accrued when working on the artwork. Maybe they should be allowed to control your copyright for a bit, just for the sake of fairness, in a 'no man is an island' sort of way.

    Manchin Shin suggested copyright should last 10 years. Yeah, the problem with such a short copyright span is obvious. What if the artwork takes time to build an audience? It could take more than 10 years for an audience to even exist, does that mean that the artist should receive nothing for their labour, that the corporations can simply hoover up all the cash and leave the artist destitute. Would that be fair.
    And ten years is a really short time in the creativity world. Really short.
    Lets take stories as an example, not just because I'm a writer but because the spin-off from stories are more varied than anything else. You can turn a novel (or short-story) into a film, a play, a computer game, a board game, a set of action figures, spin off other series or even just write some sequels. Just look at what 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' do, to see all the possibilities that a single story can create.
    So, why would a big company, which is all about the bottom line, pay the author of a story ANYTHING. Why not just wait 10 years, then the story is out of copyright and you can do what you like. You can make a film, a game, a TV series, then have the novel re-released under your own imprint or even have the novel rewritten to make it more audience-friendly, maybe you created a character that you know is going to make big-time money in merchandise and you want them in the original story. Yeah, sure, do what you like, it's out of copyright. The author can only weep in the corner or go postal. He or she will certainly have no rights.
    The same thing can happen if copyright lasts 20 years or 30 years. Some pieces of art have a very long back-end after a very slow start.

    RonKaminsky (hi) seems to think that because this is rare that it should not be covered by the law. A sort of "Sorry, you're an outlier so you are screwed' legal system. Very few pieces of art are really important, very few have a lifespan that can really take advantage of life plus 70 years, but a lot of artists are mid-listers. They may have another job, they may live hand to mouth, but the small amount of royalties the do earn helps to keep them afloat. Should that be taken away from them simply because 'the economic reality is that only a very, very small minority have value in the long term.' [RonKaminsky]
    Dunno that all seems a bit Darwinian to me. "You will create important art or you will starve."

    Anyway, just airing my confusion here. Is that what you all actually meant? I'm not looking for an argument. I like robust debate and I am not trying to flame anybody, or be a troll, or any of those other nasty things the internet makes so easy. I'm just confused. Do you really want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reduce artists to relying on patronage once again? Is that your actual intent?

    Or is all this stuff actually about patents and other forms of intellectual property, which companies buy up for legal warfare in their fight to be top dog? If it is, then just be aware that not all forms of copyright are the same.

    Nice to meet you all, I hope I haven't offended anybody, this is rather a long post but my confusion was deep.

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