Quid futurum litterarum? : will there be a Digital Public Library of America? Part 1.

When the Romans disposed of the scroll in favor of the newly invented codex early in the first century, few would have foreseen its predicament some two thousand years later.   A derivation of the writing tablet commonly used in the ancient world, the codex presented multiple bound signatures—creating pages that one could turn—and by the sixth century it had entirely replaced the scroll as the medium for the written word.  Nine centuries later Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press, and the once rare medium of the book became a household item.

Today the debate that has nationwide book lovers in throes with one another surrounds a medium much more abstract—the virtual book.  In an era during which the average person has become dependent on the internet, online social media, and instant gratification, it may not come as a shock that the printed book is ceding ground to the e-book.  The e-book has been the recipient of its own criticism of late, as e-publishers have lobbied to enforce expiration dates on their titles, after which their customers are forced to repurchase the e-book—the attribute of a rental rather than an acquisition.

We have seen this type of controversy before and it has been consistently scrutinized and defended.  Napster revolutionized a new outlet for the distribution of music, and while it ultimately surrendered its original premise to the grips of intellectual property, it brought forth a platform without which iTunes is not likely to have emerged.  The online streaming of motion pictures provides a convenient, instant venue for movie-lovers worldwide, much to the chagrin of the motion picture studios, whose response to a decline in retail DVD sales has been to stagger release dates and customize no-frills discs for movie services such as Netflix and Amazon.com.

So, it is no surprise that we have returned to the courtroom, arguing for and against a “universal public library” of digitized volumes—an endeavor that, while still in its developmental phase, in the form of Google Books has been in various stages of progress for nearly a decade.  The New York Times’s Miguel Helft reports that a 2005 copyright infringement lawsuit inspired the very collectives of authors and publishers that sued Google Books to explore and develop this undertaking that now bears the working nameDigital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Recently this project appears to have reached a point of arrested development, since a settlement that would have allowed public libraries nationwide to grant access to Google’s 15 million digitized books, was rejected on March 22, 2011 by federal judge Denny Chin in New York.

The snag in this venture is what has been the common thread in the efforts of digital revolution—intellectual property. While Google’s proceeds from selling access to these materials were to be shared with copyright holders, the settlement would have permitted Google to share in the profits, barring protest from the author and publisher of a particular title—an attempt by Google to “conquer and divide a lucrative market,” writes Robert Darnton in April 28th’s New York Review of Books.    Particularly grey are the areas of public domain titles, and “orphan works” whose copyright holders remain unknown.  “Any database that excluded them would be disastrously deficient, but any enterprise that included them would expose the digitizer to ruinously expensive lawsuits,” adds Darnton.  These books, numbering in the millions, were originally slated to cede exclusive copyrights to Google.  In the Amended Settlement Agreement of November 2009,  Google is responsible for compensating any emerging copyright holders of orphan works, but simultaneously exempt from litigation.

According to Pamela Samuelson, professor of law and information management at the University of California, Berkeley, the issue is not whether the DPLA would serve a great purpose.  The crux of the matter is that in order to make virtual books available, a digital copy of the original must first be made, which in plain language violates copyright law.  Public libraries make print materials legally available to its clientele and respect intellectual property law by consciously refraining from making reproductions.  In order for a digital library to even exist, the scanning of hardcopy titles is essential, and so an exemption must be permitted—hence the legal wrangling.  With hopes to launch a prototype in 18 months, a steering committee is working toward the possibility of a digital public library, but at present, it is not apparent whether one is in our future. Harvard Law professor and chairman of the committee, John Palfrey admits “it may well fail. But it is worth the effort.”

Continued in Part 2.

Published by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *