Category Archives: Copyright

Information wants to be free – but Viacom is holding it hostage

Last night during dinner I went to watch Tuesday’s Daily Show online, as I frequently do, only to be confronted with a bizarre pop-up ad about DirecTV (which seemed to have nothing to do with me, since I don’t have DirecTV, or, indeed, a TV at all) and a message saying that full episodes were not currently available online. I did a couple of Google searches trying to find out what was going on, but my roommate said, “It’s just a contract dispute – they’ll work it out in a couple of days. Let’s watch something on Netflix instead.”

Turns out this contract dispute – over how much DirecTV pays for Viacom content – has been dragging on for a while. Viacom evidently thought it might come to this, registering its Facebook propaganda page “WhenDirectvDrops” on June 15, weeks before the July 10 deadline. According to the Washington Post, Viacom wants DirecTV to pay 30% more for Viacom channels; DirecTV has refused; both sides are spinning the story – Viacom blaming DirecTV for “dropping” content, Direct TV claiming they are “protecting consumers” – hoping viewers will forget they are caught in a dispute between profitable corporate giants. While Viacom posted DirecTV’s customer service number on its Facebook page and in its ads, encouraging viewers to call and complain, DirecTV was telling its customers where they could watch the full episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show for free online – and Viacom responded by blocking the full episodes.

Why should you care? Because this is what can happen when information, software, and services are controlled by companies primarily interested in profit. Many libraries (including my own) saw something similar this week when Meebo, acquired last month by Google, reached its own drop-dead date yesterday. And don’t forget those big price increases for databases and e-journals – when one of our products changed publishers and increased in price by 100% we had no choice but to can it. It goes away if you don’t pay.

Hopefully my roommate is right – that these two megagiant corporations will “work it out in a couple of days” – because, with no real rights to content which is protected by laws that favor intellectual property owners over viewers, users, and readers, that is our only option. I’m not trying to argue that we have a right to watch Jersey Shore online for free, or ought to. (Tweeter Courtney Mattison told the Associated Press the dispute was “costing her a couple hours of reality TV per night” – and you could argue she is better off.) But Viacom could decide to keep free full episodes offline and force consumers without subscription cable to turn to paid online viewing services, other media providers could follow suit, and then we are that much closer to an information environment where the only way any content is available is through a pay-per-view license negotiated between the company and the end user because we have created the legal and technological structures that make this feasible, profitable, and, even, acceptable.

I recently discovered the beauty of the Kindle for iPad app – I can download a book right to my iPad and start reading it right then! no waiting! But, of course, the Kindle license agreement (which Amazon can change, but I can’t) allows Amazon the ability to pull back the content at any time – content that I am paying for but not purchasing. Now, I’m not likely to want to refer back to my copy of New Moon (Book 2 of the Twilight Saga) and might never miss it, but if the book was a textbook, and the giant textbook publisher got in a dispute with Amazon, and Amazon decided to hold all the books hostage until it got enough readers to call and complain…

This is old ground, of course. Is paying a little bit for access to electronic information for an unspecified amount of time good enough? Most of the time, it probably is, it might even be fair, and most people, including me, might be perfectly willing to do it. But the problem is that this model gives me no real rights to the information. It’s as if I had no stake in it, which, while that may be true for online streaming of Jersey Shore, is less true for my copy of the Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 and is definitely NOT true for the last album I “bought” on iTunes.

You might say, well, then, buy print if you want those rights. Buy CDs. Or check the DVD out of the library. But the reality is that physical media is not only often less attractive to users (I like reading books on my iPad, I’ve discovered), it’s also becoming less available (how many of you live in college towns without a bookstore?), and it’s only a matter of time before it’s not available at all. Libraries are ditching print for online, too. Universities are adopting electronic textbooks. And without any revisions to copyright law that protect the interests of information consumers, libraries and end users are both at the mercy of the publishers’ willingness to negotiate and/or keep the promises they make to never do what they reserve the right to do.

We operate on good faith with our vendors (“it’s a trust relationship,” a rep from Innovative once told me). But at ALA last month I heard Cody Hanson talking about the process of choosing a commercial discovery service for the University of Minnesota Libraries. He wasn’t able to disclose yet what that discovery service was, but he told the audience that these products are “as different as they are similar,” and what makes them so different are not just their features, but the business models and “nature” of their vendors. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but as I look at my library’s portfolio of e-products, where, by the end of this month, two-thirds of our subscription databases will come from just one vendor, I sure hope I can trust in that vendor’s good nature. Because there’s precious few other providers we can direct our patrons to, and I don’t really think that making a Facebook page and giving them an 800 number is going to be enough.

Georgia State E-reserves Case Roundup

Last Friday the Judge finally handed down a decision in the Georgia State University e-reserves case, a year after the trial and three years after the suit was brought by academic publishers SAGE, Cambridge University Press, and Oxford University Press. These publishers sued GSU for allowing faculty to upload course readings excerpted from books to the university’s course management system, alleging that the university had gone beyond the accepted guidelines for fair use.

It’s only Monday morning but there’s already been loads of commentary on the decision, a PDF of which was posted online late Friday by Nancy Sims, Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota. It seems that on balance the decision favors GSU and libraries: copyright violation was found in only 5 of the 99 instances of uploading course readings. I’m sure there will be more coming on this case, as neither GSU nor the plaintiffs have released comments on the decision. But here are some great articles to get you started considering this case and its potential effects on academic libraries:

Three Cheers and Two Questions for the DPLA

Robert Darnton gave a talk at my institution last week about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). He presented a progress report, the details of which he has outlined in the New York Review of Books. The first prototype of the DPLA, using technology developed in the project’s “Beta Sprint” competition, should be released in April 2013.

Darnton’s inspiration is familiar to most academic librarians: publisher greed has turned the public good of knowledge into a private commodity. Rising subscription prices have created an enclosure movement whereby the knowledge commons has become a gated community. The DPLA is envisioned as a “mega-meta-macro library” that would harness the technology of the internet to disseminate and preserve the world’s information for all, and for the ages.

I was encouraged and inspired by Darnton’s talk. As the project moves forward, I have two questions, both relating to possible unintended effects of the DPLA on long-term preservation of library materials.

Darnton described how the DPLA would employ a “moving wall” model of access to collections. Much like JSTOR’s archives of journal articles, the DPLA’s holdings would ideally lag three to five years behind currently released material (once some very thorny copyright issues have been untangled). Local institutions – public and academic libraries – would complement the DPLA by continuing to provide access to newly published books. The DPLA’s “opening day” collection would aggregate existing digital projects, such as the Hathi Trust and Internet Archive, enhanced by unique digital collections from rare book and special collections libraries.

My first question is: to what extent would this moving wall disincentivize academic and public libraries to maintain and preserve their own print collections, once the DPLA’s materials are available? My institution, like many, has deaccessioned back runs of JSTOR journals. With pressure on our libraries to reappropriate shelf space, will we see the same trend with book collections? Will public libraries lose support from their communities if “everything” indeed becomes available on the internet?

Second – and I must credit one of our library’s interns for this question – since the DPLA will aggregate many different digital collections, how confident are we that digitization standards will be consistent? Darnton admitted after the lecture that provided certain baseline standards are met, the project may have little control over quality. Individual institutions do such a nice job in digitizing their own materials, he suggested, that they could be models for the rest of the project. But given the amount of material targeted for inclusion, and the unlikelihood of reprocessing millions of pages of material already digitized, we can probably expect a wide variation in standards. How important is this, to us and to users?

Before the lecture, I joked to a friend that we were about to watch an episode of “Darnton Abbey.” Librarians in Darnton Abbey will be both upstairs and downstairs – we should labor to support the project, but we, like all users, will also greatly benefit. In the face of trends that threaten to enclose information in an estate of privilege, the DPLA aims to democratize knowledge for all.

The Bearer of Bad News

One of the college service projects I’m working on involves the creation of a new digital platform for teaching and learning at my college. As faculty have begun to use the platform for their courses this semester, I’m finding that there’s been an uptick in the number of questions I field about posting course readings online. We don’t have an ereserve system at my library, and while I take any opportunity I can get to promote direct linking into our article databases, inevitably there are readings that faculty need to assign to their students that aren’t available in the databases.

It’s so interesting to see the range of awareness about copyright issues among my faculty colleagues. When they ask me whether then can post scanned book chapters or articles on their password-protected course sites, I respond by mentioning the Georgia State copyright case and urging caution. Many (most?) of the faculty I’ve spoken with aren’t aware of the case, perhaps because, like so many other aspects of the scholarly communications system, it seems like a library problem?

I like talking with faculty about copyright alternatives: about open access publishing, public domain materials, creative commons licenses, and how openness benefits researchers and the public — I could go on for hours. And I sympathize with faculty who struggle to get course materials to their students in the most efficient way possible. But I don’t like it when there are no acceptable alternatives. That’s tough to talk about, and I hate the hollow awkwardness that comes with telling colleagues that it’s not advisable to do something that is already such an accepted practice in faculty culture.

The Georgia State trial has ended. Once the verdict is announced, whatever the decision, we’ll have another opportunity for conversations about copyright alternatives with faculty. How can we promote awareness across the academy and emphasize that copyright isn’t just a library issue?

Nothing Right about This Copyright Ruling

The world of copyright litigation is getting downright surreal. Recently a court struck down an appeal of a NY case involving reselling books from overseas in the U.S. Essentially, the court ruled that the first sale doctrine applies only to works manufactured in the United States. As reported in Library Journal:

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in John Wiley & Sons Inc v. Supap Kirtsaeng that Kirtsaeng, a Thai man studying in the United States, infringed upon John Wiley & Sons’ copyrights when he had his family send him cheaper foreign editions of Wiley textbooks, printed by Wiley Asia, that he then resold on eBay for a profit.

Kevin Smith on the Scholarly Communications @ Duke blog has a great, clearheaded explanation of the implications of this decision for libraries:

One of the problems that the Wiley decision creates is uncertainty about library lending. Libraries do not even know, I am afraid, how much of their collections are manufactured abroad. In the Second Circuit, however, lending anything that was manufactured outside the U.S. is now in question, regardless of where it was purchased (even directly from the publisher).

Even more disturbing are the potential effects this ruling could have on students:

If libraries are in a difficult position, students may be even worse off under the Second Circuit’s ruling. Again, publishers now have an incentive to manufacture their textbooks abroad and sell them to U.S. students. Such students would no longer have the right to re-sell their textbooks or to purchase used texts.

The takeaway is that libraries may not be able to loan out books that were manufactured outside the United States, and students may not be able to buy or sell used textbooks. As Smith and others point out, there are dissenting opinions in the case, and perhaps the ruling will be challenged again in the future. But nonetheless this court ruling creates a potentially awful situation for higher education.

I’ll be interested to see whether there is any outcry over this decision from parts of the commercial sector. At my college (like many others) our bookstore buys back used textbooks to resell to students, and there are lots of thriving online book resellers like Half.com, Amazon, and AbeBooks. Perhaps these businesses will challenge the court ruling, which seems to have the potential to ruin many of them.

Every time I hear news like this I wonder how much closer it brings us to the tipping point, whether these increasingly restrictive applications of copyright law will push libraries and higher education into action against scholarly publishers who seem to be making it more and more challenging to read and use the work they publish. But it can be difficult to determine what action to take. Smith suggests a couple of possibilities, including libraries’ asking where books were manufactured before purchasing them, which I have to admit seems onerous to me. Faculty could stop assigning textbooks manufactured overseas to their students, but given the advantages to publishers of offshore manufacturing there will likely always be the need to assign at least some books that were not made in the U.S.

It’s also interesting to note that there was no coverage of this story in two of the bigger higher ed news sources, The Chron and InsideHigherEd.com. Perhaps this, like so many other scholarly publishing issues, is thought to be more of a problem for libraries than for faculty and administrators? Though I’d hate to see libraries restricting their lending practices and students balking at buying textbooks they can’t resell, perhaps these effects would raise awareness of these issues more broadly throughout academia?