French National Library Privatizes Public Domain Materials

from the deep-betrayal dept

Copyright is sometimes described as a bargain between two parties: creators and their public. In return for receiving a government-backed monopoly on making copies, creators promise to place their works in the public domain at the end of the copyright term. The problem with that narrative is that time and again, the public is cheated out of what it is due.

For example, copyright terms can be extended retrospectively, which means that material will be locked up for longer than originally promised in the "deal". Or there can be a privatization of public domain materials, using contracts, as reported here by Communia:

Last week the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) concluded two new agreements with private companies to digitize over 70.000 old books, 200.000 sound recordings and other documents belonging (either partially or as a whole) to the public domain. While these public private partnerships enable the digitization of these works they also contain 10-year exclusive agreements allowing the private companies carrying out the digitization to commercialize the digitized documents. During this period only a limited number of these works may be offered online by the BnF.
Communia points out:
The value of the public domain lies in the free dissemination of knowledge and the ability for everyone to access and create new works based on previous works. Yet, instead of taking advantage of the opportunities offered by digitization, the exclusivity of these agreements will force public bodies, such as research institutions or university libraries, to purchase digital content that belongs to the common cultural heritage.

As such, these partnerships constitute a commodification of the public domain by contractual means.
These kind of initiatives are typically justified on the grounds that there's no other way to digitize books and recordings. But that's clearly not true: money could be taken from other projects to pay for such work. It's really a question of priorities. These "public-private" partnerships come about because institutions like the Bibliothèque nationale de France have given up fighting for the public domain, despite being its guardians, and have acquiesced in its privatization.

It's a sad sign of the extent to which once-great libraries and galleries have been assimilated by the copyright industry and its culture of owning rather than sharing that they can't see why their complicity in this kind of enclosure of the knowledge commons is a deep betrayal of their origins and primary mission.

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  1. icon
    Griffdog (profile), 31 Jan 2013 @ 1:27pm

    but, but, but...

    As noted in several comments, something just doesn't add up in this story. Sure, the library could digitize and then exclusively offer or sell those digitizations. But it just doesn't seem like there's any law, in France or elsewhere, that would prevent any other entity from digitizing another copy of the book(s) or other form of media and then offering that version to the public for free or for sale.

    Sounds like the BnF wants to be a bookstore, not a library.

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