Dirty Deeds: French National Library Privatizes Public Domain, Part 2

from the because-the-situation-hadn't-hit-MAXIMUM-UNCOMFORTIBILITY dept

Earlier in January, the French Ministry of Culture proudly announced a fresh public-private partnership between the French National Library and the privately-held ProQuest, defining how the company will digitize 70,000 books originally published between 1470 and 1700. The agreement sparked outrage among free culture defenders, who denounced a privatization of materials in 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."

As none of the agreement partners bothered to reply to inquiries from journalists and free culture advocates, the only source of information was a press release from the Ministry of Culture mentioning an official agreement between the Library (Bibliothèque nationale de France, BnF) and ProQuest. The release was highlighting the somewhat obscure branch "BnF-Partenariats" as executives of the contract, and that this agreement is part of a wider initiative: "Early European Books."

The issue here is not commercial use of materials in the public domain but the labyrinthine logic of the agreement. This logic proposes that a client from the public sector (i.e. research and education institutions) will buy a number of works handled by another public institution (i.e. the French National Library), and the profits will reimburse money advanced by a private service provider. A painful situation for our cultural heritage, forcibly entrusted to be the square peg to get into the round monetary hole.

What is unclear, however, are the legal terms under which the digital copies will be handled. In plain English, the BnF has signed an agreement to sell access to digitized copies of books in the public domain. This makes a travesty of its official role: the BnF is supposed to grant access to these works, but the BnF-ProQuest agreement actually blocks access. In the present (whacko) case, the Library – that is, the public institution invested with the power to manage commons, – not only does what is normally the publisher's job, selling, but it also monetizes these works, thus acting as a merchant, which takes work from publishers. The larger questions this raises over exclusivity and ownership of these digital versions are very important. From what's been said to date, it seemingly implies that the digitization of those books means the outcome is a brand new production owned by the ProQuest, the digitization service provider.

Even more strange? ProQuest's agreements elsewhere are quite different, and not nearly as controversial. The BnF-ProQuest agreement is a part of the "Early European Books" initiative. In addition to the French, four other national libraries are a part of the effort: the Royal Library (Denmark), the National Central Library of Florence (Italy), the National Library of the Netherlands, and the The Wellcome Library, London (UK).

The details for each of these agreements, however, are quite different than the agreement in France. Indeed, in every other case, ProQuest digitizes, at its own expense, the works in the public domain operated by the respective partnering national library. It then offers free access to the digital versions of these materials within the country. As ProQuest needs to earn money, it sells the access to its database to other countries (through subscriptions contracted by the universities). According to the BnF-ProQuest agreement, however, no free access to the digital versions is provided other than the very limited version as described above.

Oh, and as if a national library agreeing to sell the country's cultural heritage was not absurd enough, when asked for the details of the agreement the BnF has now admitted that its contract with ProQuest has been misplaced. One might properly note that, so too, has the public domain been "misplaced" with this deal.

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Filed Under: france, libraries, privatization, public domain
Companies: bnf, proquest


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  1. identicon
    special interesting, 19 Feb 2013 @ 7:56pm

    Comment 11 was mine. It just slipped out. Been waiting for a good cultural theft by copyright to post this. It kept growing from an earlier post I made.

    Having read TechDirt for a while because it seems to be one of the most intellectually profitable sites existing. (no pun) This is an attempt to explore why it matters to fuss so much about (unfortunately) obscure copyright laws and such. Starting with a rough definition of culture with examples and proceeding to how culture is limited by copyright laws and the importance of the public commons as a working cultural concept.

    My argument is in reality is 'what is awareness'... Culture is an awareness of our surroundings including people, places and the way we live.

    What is culture anyway? Culture is one of them touchy feely kind of topics which young adolescents worry and get pimples over. Every person has their own cultural heritage to express. It is wisdom to foster an environment that makes cultural transfer easy and enjoyable that way your kids will get less achene. Yes, how and when you learn of 'birds and bees' is firmly embedded in culture.

    Culture is the words we use when talking to our family, friends, strangers, business, TV commercials (argue with me), political speeches and pretty much every thing we hear in the news and backyard fence gossiping. Culture is an inseparable part of us. Culture is the meam of meams about which we flow our citizen awareness.

    Without culture we could not even speak to each other. With every word we speak there is a reference to a dictionary entry of which there might be several but more importantly we have most likely ignored the official meaning of the word and arbitrarily expected your friend/listener to “understand what you mean” (and usually get away with this especially since we think its clever.) It's a mild form of slang and of course there is the creative use of slang and lets not forget invectives like cussing. Its normal to imply, suggest and hint all at the same time and in one sentence. Language evolves along with culture in a way like regional accents do.

    Culture is impossible to pin down exactly because of its changing, morphing nature. It can be described parts of it at any time but it would only be a small local still photo of a moving event the size of the universe.

    A song is played once and we interpret it in the light of our present attitude. We discuss with our social group what the song means and come up with some current consensus of the meaning of the song we shared. The shared meaning of the song is now anchored in our local and now changed new culture.

    Culture is important. The stories given to you by your parents as you became aware. Which ones do you remember as a part of yourself? (are they copyrighted or trademarked? Does this make a difference? And could you tell if you were a child?)

    Culture is important. It is how we as a people, society share the knowledge that WAR IS BAD. Killing is wrong and treating your neighbors as cool people is good. Did I miss a step anywhere? How we act is a function of what we interpret from CULTURE.

    Culture is important. Fill in the blank here. Special interest regulation is bad, to much government is bad, abuse of copyright is bad. How do we learn this except by talking to each other and building a shared culture that wont tolerate such abuses.

    Most all have heard that psychologically we are more worried about acting in the way everyone around us (culture of behavior of copying the local culture. pun) expects than what reality demands of us. (example; high school biology lab experiments where the average student is looking more at their competitor students than the lab instruction manual if only because they partied to much last night to read it.)

    What is reality anyway? Culture makes a good way to describe our lives in a dynamic way.

    Punch line: copyright (and all the ridiculous new laws surrounding it) regulates culture. It removes, prohibits, denies and destroys culture because it stops or slows by many years the sharing of such cultural items such as books, comics, songs, movies, research papers, etc. etc. etc. Keep in mind there is a real cultural need to share these items or data with your children (do it for the children! As if that phrase is not over abused) when they come of age.

    By the time your kids grow up many books and songs will be out of print or publication and will not be available at any price or with growing copyright monopolies and shrinking economies only available at an unfordable price which is absurd because all this can be copied at an economic price of zero. Kids books are notorious for their turnover.

    We already live in a media market so starved that downloads only seem to increase the demand for media sales. Starving the market only serves to do what and to who? Since copyright serves to effectively control the sharing of culture what does that say about our freedom to express ourselves in any such way?

    Example of how copyright edits history: Martin Luther King's (MLK) I have a Dream public speech which has been claimed by his family which wants to charge everyone to see it. MLK would blow up and yell at his family and spank them for such foolish idiocy. The very people whom this public message he gave to could not afford to purchase it at any price. To hear the speech one must go to the family's museum and pay to get in or license it on an individual basis. His legacy speech is now sequestered in a way that any opposition group could never do. The other side wins. Good culture has been selectively edited from the public commons and flushed down the toilet of selfish interest.

    The concept of public commons is seems to be lost in our current cultural dynamic. It is human nature that we all want to 'get ahead' and we do this by paying attention to our cultural surroundings. Our success is gained through cultural intelligence. In that bio lab experiment in school was that group you were trying to learn from doing it right in the first place? In the whole class there are always a few that have read and understood the lesson its natural to 'look over their shoulders' for covert intel.

    In an attempt to foster more creative works we give the author the temporary copyright to withhold from the public commons for a short time. I expect this timespan to be less than 15-30y. Furthermore such a timespan would in no way hurt publishers or authors as 95% of media profits are made within the first 2 years. There are exceptions to this but one can argue that once a media product becomes massively popular it is already become popular culture and withholding it from the public commons for even 15-30 years is to much.

    The entire concept of copyright is to benefit the public through public commons ownership. We all benefit by increasing the size, depth and breadth of the public commons in so many ways. When we increase public commons we improve the quality of the cultural language we use to share ideas and concepts that we cannot find the exact words for. For example; Do I have the eloquence and depth of passion that MLK brilliantly displays in his I have a Dream speech? No. So all I can do is reference his good work and hopefully can provide you with a copy of it immediately. We all can see the need to increase the size of our cultural universe.

    I have no pretensions that any of this essay is original or creative or even funny. I even remember some of it from a middle school instructor and of course reading of this site and others. It is gathered from bits and pieces of random trivia glued together with some sort of cultural awareness (wisdom would be to strong).

    My official comment on eternal copyright laws is a modern cultural emoticon :P

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