Lessig’s Uncompromising Position

Lawrence Lessig makes some interesting points in his Wired piece on the Google suits. A 1909 law that gave copyright holders (and the publishers with whom they make agreements) “the exclusive right to control copies of their works” didn’t anticipate that the only way to index digital material (or, in fact, to read it) is by copying. He urges Google to stay the course.

A rich and rational (and publicly traded) company may be tempted to compromise – to pay for the “right” that it and others should get for free, just to avoid the insane cost of defending that right. Such a company is driven to do what’s best for its shareholders. But if Google gives in, the loss to the Internet will be far more than the amount it will pay publishers. It will be a bad compromise for everyone working to make the Internet more useful – and for everyone who will ultimately use it.

This truly is a tipping point because the implications – all of them – are enormous.

CLIRing Things Up

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has a new report out on Acquiring Copyright Permissions to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books. Among the findings: orphan works are a problem. Locating and dealing with publishers is daunting. If a book includes materials for which the publisher had to acquire rights (say, to quote a poem) they don’t feel they have the right to include the book in an open access project. And now that “out of print” doesn’t mean what it used to mean, publishers can hang onto rights for as long as they can print on demand – so even if the copyright holder is willing, the publisher may not be. Ever.

This reminds me that during the e-book boom around 2000 I asked a representative from NetLibrary what the biggest challenge was. He said it was winning over publishers – it took far more time and effort than anything else. That boom, of course, went bust largely because everyone in the industry was trying to figure out how to make money by cutting someone else out of the picture. In an article I wrote about it I quoted a New York Times book critic who asked a key question: “What’s in it for the reader?”

I think the industry needs to ask that question again if they want to be in business.

Google, copyright and Gorman

In case you missed this recent Wall Street Journal article on Google print, several librarians are quoted including ALA President Michael Gorman.

Gorman continues to channel librarians of 80-100 years ago who believed not only that people ought to read, but that people ought to read the right things in the right way, and librarians were to show them how. Gorman says, “They are reducing scholarly texts to paragraphs. The point of a scholarly text is they are written to be read sequentially from beginning to end, making an argument and engaging you in dialogue.” Huh? Besides lumping scholarly texts from many disciplines into one category, who knows what the point of a scholarly text is? Maybe the point of a scholarly text is to get the author tenure. Maybe the author’s point is to get the ideas out there and build reputation. Furthermore, if I read the whole thing from beginning to end, how am I in dialogue? It’s more like a monologue. Ok suppose you are supposed to read the whole text from beginning to end. What if giving someone a little taste makes them want to go for the whole meal? And what if I’ve already read the whole work a while ago and forgot most of it and want to go back and search for a particular part that’s relevant to my work now? There’s no end to the different ways people use texts, and librarians shouldn’t be telling them that they must use them or read them in a certain way. At least the article noted Gorman wasn’t speaking on behalf of ALA.

Andrew Herkovic, director of communications at Stanford University Libraries “declined to comment” on whether Stanford provided copyrighted material to Google. Google is not always forthcoming, but at least Google admits they’re scanning copyrighted texts. If Stanford did provide copyrighted material, could they be named in the lawsuit? Would this be against ALA’s code of ethics, which says librarians should respect copyright? I guess there’s always a chance Herkovic/Stanford doesn’t know if they’ve given copyrighted material or not, but shouldn’t they make it their business to know?

Duelling PR

According to CNET News, Random House and Amazon are now planning to allow customers to pay per page or get electronic access to books they buy in print. What I find interesting is how much Amazon claims can be “searched inside” (one out of every two books sold) and how postive the impact on sales (8% lift for those that are searchable). You’d think that would make Google’s project all the more attractive, but worries about DRM and Google’s ultimate plans for their digital texts seem to be giving publishers (and a few authors) the willies.

One correction to the record, though: Amazon doesn’t work with copyright holders, only publishers. Authors who hold copyright were not asked if they wanted their books “searched inside.” I’ve asked a number of authors if they were consulted when their books were entered in the Search Inside program. Hardly any of them even knew their books were included, and none were asked. Presumably, publishers are submitting books to which they have publication rights, and that’s being conflated with asking the copyright holder. Whatever – only I find it disingenuous for Amazon to keep talking about honoring the rights of copyright holders when copyright holders are not given any choice (except hey – to opt out. Does that sound familiar?) Oh, and by the way – if Google’s privacy policies worry you, Amazon’s should too. A benefit of participating is letting publishers know what bits of books are searched, and you have to hand over your credit card information to search inside the book. Now, that should give librarians the willies!

I hope the Open Content Alliance isn’t lost in these competing PR releases. Though operating without deep pockets it has principles I can respect. On the other hand, it’s time we sorted out how to reinterpret “copy” in a digital age and Google’s chutzpah (and their lawyers’ fees) are putting it on the table.

Against Regulation

The ALA has joined with the American Council on Education and other organizations in filing suit against FCC regulations that could cost college billions of dollars to make eavesdropping slightly more convenient. The plaintiffs argue that the changes are not necessary and that law enforcement needs can be served (when warrants are properly served) without these expensive changes. There’s more coverage of this story in The New York Times, the Chroncle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

I happened to be reading about this news at the same time an Australian friend send me an article about a speech given by Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee (author of Waiting for the Barbarians among other novels) at the National Library of Australia. His reminder that terrorism as a threat was used to argue in favor of apartheid has caused some controversy as the Australian PM pushes legislation to expand police powers in the name of national security.

Seems ironic that an FBI that can’t get their own computer systems to work wants us to fine tune ours at great cost for their benefit. I guess “Kafkaesque” is a good word for it. Or is “Coetzeean” a word?