Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Who Should Own Ideas?

There could've been no more auspicious time for me to catch WNPR's "Where We Live" program this AM about "Who should own ideas?", featuring James Boyle (William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law and co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School) & Lawrence Lessig (Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society). Boyle just published The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (it is also available as a free download under Creative Commons licensing at Between the Trendspotting workshop last week highlighting open source systems for libraries and a meeting that I had this Monday with our preservation librarian and archivists about a project we're doing that includes photos of works of art produced by CT's WPA artists, I've been thinking alot about the idea of "the commons". (Not to mention that Stephen Colbert featured Lessig the other night, talking about his latest work Remix, which also advocates for a loosening of today's overly restrictive intellectual property laws.)

I'm reading The Public Domain now. And here's a segment I came upon (pp. 10-11) that's specific to libraries.

I was searching the Library of Congress catalogue online one night, tracking down a seventy-year-old book about politics and markets, when my son came in to watch me. He was about eight years old at the time but already a child of the Internet age. He asked what I was doing and I explained that I was printing out the details of the book so that I could try to find it in my own university library. “Why don’t you read it online?” he said, reaching over my shoulder and double-clicking on the title, frowning when that merely led to another information page: “How do you get to read the actual book?” I smiled at the assumption that all the works of literature were not merely in the Library of Congress, but actually on the Net: available to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world—so that you could not merely search for, but also read or print, some large slice of the Library’s holdings.
Imagine what that would be like. Imagine the little underlined blue hyperlink from each title—to my son it made perfect sense. The book’s title was in the catalogue. When you clicked the link, surely you would get to read it. That is what happened in his experience when one clicked a link. Why not here? It was an old book, after all, no longer in print. Imagine being able to read the books, hear the music, or watch the films—or at least the ones that the Library of Congress thought it worthwhile to digitize. Of course, that is ridiculous.
I tried to explain this to my son. I showed him that there were some works that could be seen online. I took him to the online photograph library, meaning to show him the wealth of amazing historical photographs. Instead, I found myself brooding over the lengthy listing of legal restrictions on the images and the explanation that reproduction of protected items may require the written permission of the copyright owners and that, in many cases, only indistinct and tiny thumbnail images are displayed to those searching from outside the Library of Congress “because of potential rights considerations.” The same was true of the scratchy folk songs from the twenties or the early film holdings. The material was in the Library, of course—remarkable collections in some cases, carefully preserved, and sometimes even digitized at public expense. Yet only a tiny fraction of it is available online.

I'd been so frustrated about discussions on the WPA project when someone at first suggested that we should put "bands" on every photo of a WPA work that we put up identifying our ownership of that photo & the need for people not affiliated with our library to contact us before in any way using it. My first point was that the works of art we have photos of were made under the WPA - funded by the federal government for the greater good. So WHY would WE add restrictions to photos we've taken of that artwork? We're a library, for goodness' sake, not professional photographers whose work is set up to make us $. We put things out there for the greater good. We're funded by the government (actually, the people - the taxpayers - when it comes right down to it) for the people. We exist for the greater good. So what if some kid copies the photo & puts a moustache on some person featured in the artwork photographed? It's not our business. As long as no one tries to make money off of it, what do we care? It's called Creative Commons licensing and - to my way of thinking - libraries should only consider creating web content if they are willing to add it to the Creative Commons. But, of course, we librarians have traditionally been gatekeepers (and honestly, we can be big into control, if you know what I mean), so this concept of Creative Commons licensing is a revelation to many in our field. Still, where we add value and meaning in an increasingly commercialized online space is by providing open access to the materials that we put online. We foster innovation and increase democratization by participating in the openness of the Creative Commons. Those are two admirable goals for libraries.

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