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
    NickPoole1 (profile), 6 Jan 2012 @ 1:46am

    Re: Re: #38. It's a laudable aim, but...

    Hi Mike,

    I'll try to be succinct, but it's a big argument! The public has every right to expect that their common cultural heritage will be accessible to them. Access to literacy and knowledge (in which I include cultural literacy and the experience of physical heritage) is a birthright, and one to which every citizen in a free state is entitled.

    The digital revolution has happened within a startlingly short space of time, and leaves us with a very specific legacy issue - which is that the primary formats for encoding and transmitting knowledge since the invention of movable type (paper, stone, canvas) has been superseded by an alternate format (bits).

    This gives our generation the responsibility for retro-conversion. We can safely assume that the bulk of material created from here on for the next century will be born-digital (which confers the handy benefit that it is inherently format-shiftable, which paper is not). But for now, culture is physical.

    Funding the conversion of this material is an issue which operates at a scale that is beyond the institutional. It can really only be achieved either by corporations (Google, Microsoft) or Governments, since only institutions at this scale can leverage the upfront capital required to make it work.

    Bringing commercial capital in raises a specific issue - which is the need to turn the cultural artefact into an economic asset (because corporations are designed to generate profit). Some endeavours, however, improve the general lot of mankind, but are not in themselves profit-making (although I would argue that there is a symbiotic relationship between a healthy, educated citizenship and a thriving commercial sector).

    Funding things that are for the public good, but not in themselves profitable, is the domain of public-service. Hence , public-service broadcasters can develop educational or exploratory broadcast content that might not perform in a purely commercial market.

    Analogies to Digitisation abound - look at the way in which Governments have taken old, diverse railway systems and invested huge capital in turning them into modern standard-gauge transit networks. Once every few generations, it becomes necessary to swap out old infrastructure for new - even if the payoff isn't realised until two generations down the line.

    Because, however, most Western Governments are in thrall to the market principle, many contemporary politicians have lost sight of the privilege of long-term vision and investment, and have instead come to believe that the only path to re-election is to play to the crowd (I actually think this is a mis-understandng and that if you ask the majority of the people whether they will accept short-term taxation offset against long-term investment, they would see the value for the sake of their children).

    This intellectual and philosophical position has now come to infect almost every area of public and civic life. Hence nurses must quanitfy health, teachers must quantify curricula and public art must defend itself on the basis of a return on investment (in a charming asdide, a colleague said to me last year 'why are we judging the value of something 6000 years old by how many people came to see it last year?').

    Fussing about Copyright is tilting at entirely the wrong windmill. People adopt propositional attitudes about whether cultural institutions should or shouldn't regard their collections as their property, and seek to monetise them as Intellectual Property. Cultural institutions themselves are hugely conflicted because behaving this way goes fundamentally against their instinct to collect, preserve, interpret and share.

    In legislative terms, and even as a principle, Copyright is one of the more straightforward bits of most legal frameworks. What people are really arguing about is the economic basis of culture as a public good, and they are choosing copyright as the most coherent focus around which to argue. After many years in the business, I know that a license is nothing more or less than a contract - what really matters is the commonality and shared understanding of intent that goes behind the meaning of the contract.

    This is why I take issue with the word 'ought'. The public think culture ought to be free, culture thinks culture ought to be free (the 'protectionist' curator is, I think, a dying breed), most politicians when pressed will say that culture ought to be free. But this generation of politicians is inherently unsuited to the kind of visionary thinking required to make the necessary investment. The public, for their part, are not demanding it (because there isn't a coherent enough 'crisis' to get them off the sofa). The sector, for our part, is spending *far* too much time battling over the endless theological posturing of copyright and has completely failed to articulate a clear and compelling case to Government or the public for why this is urgent.

    So, when you ask which actor I mean, I mean that we are all complicit in this situation. Copyright evangelists and 'open' lobbyists need to stop being so naive about the fundamental realities of running an organisation and learn to work with cultural institutions within a pragmatic framework. Cultural people need to stop playing the Industrialist. Governments need to see past getting re-elected and put money into the long-term welfare of their populations. Technologists need to stop presenting the latest bit-shunting trick as The Answer and learn to facilitate real need.

    Until at least one of these starts to happen, I fear we're all going to be locked into exactly the same ghastly recursive mud-slinging we've been in for the past two decades.

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