This spring’s Digital Library Federation forum, the last under DLF as an independent organization, included a session for “lightning talks”, where speakers take 5 minutes or less to present an idea or make a demonstration. Here are the remarks I prepared for the one I gave, building on some recent discussion of the Google Books Settlement. I’ve added some links to provide a bit more context to these remarks.
Like many other folks, I’m excited about the Google Books settlement, and the possibility that millions of out of print books may become available for our patrons to search and read online. I think the services that Google proposes could greatly expand the scope and the usability of our book collections.
But I also appreciate the concern expressed over some of the details of the settlement: in particular, the concerns over the monopolies that it creates. Monopolies have a tendency to impose increasingly onerous terms on consumers. They may raise prices to levels that make it difficult for libraries to fulfill their independent missions. They may also pay insufficient attention to concerns like privacy or intellectual freedom that are important for many of our readers.
A lot of people have commented on Google’s monopoly here, but the settlement actually creates another monopoly, one that may be more problematic, and that’s the Book Rights Registry. The name suggests a passive store of information, but in fact it’s an active agent that has the power to negotiate and set terms of access on behalf of publishers and authors for millions of out of print books. This is the body—and the only body—that will set the default wholesale prices for copyrighted books, whether they’re provided by Google or by anyone else that might get similar rights in the future.
And the information the registry maintains might not be what’s most useful to libraries and the public. As agents for copyright holders, they’re likely to keep very good records about who claims rights to various books, and who you should pay if you want to use them. But they won’t have much incentive to determine, for instance, that a particular work is actually in the public domain. As we saw in yesterday’s first panel, many works published after 1922 actually are public domain, but it’s often very difficult for someone to find this out. And I’ve already heard some folks advise publishers to claim anything they might have rights to, if there’s any uncertainty about its status. So there needs to be some counterbalance to the claims made by commercial publishers and rightsholder organizations.
That’s why I wonder whether it might be a good idea to imagine a sort of “Reader’s Rights Registry”, that would serve as a counterbalance to the Book Rights Registry. The reader’s registry would track information and advocate on behalf of readers and libraries. For instance, it could compile facts related to public domain status or open content licenses, and share these facts widely with the community. It could press Google and other vendors to keep prices affordable, and to make it easy for readers to protect their privacy. It could track books withheld or withdrawn from full text access, for whatever reason, and work to provide access through alternative channels where appropriate. It could press Congress or the Justice Department for reasonable and nondiscriminatory blanket licensing of orphan works and out of print works.
I’m not saying we necessarily have to create a brand new organization to do these things. They could be done by an existing organization, or set of organizations, or a newly merged organization. What’s; important is that we find a way to articulate what our readers need from mass-digitized book services, gather appropriate information to support these needs, and organize the resources to make that a reality. We shouldn’t wait for someone else, whether Google or the courts, to do it for us.
There’s also more work to be done in digitizing copyright registrations and renewals. I’m working on some of that now, and would be glad to talk about it later on. Google also is doing its own digitization of the complete Catalog of Copyright Entries, and plans to release it publicly. I’m looking forward to that.
Hathi Trust is also doing important work. As we heard yesterday, they’re doing their own copyright research on their books, and I hope they’ll eventually open up their research registry for the library community to use and contribute to. The scope of activities one might imagine for a Reader’s Rights Registry is a bit broader than what Hathi Trust is currently doing, and it would require a broader base of support that what Hathi Trust has now. But they’ve made a very good start on many of the kinds of independent activities I think we’ll need.
I know that all our libraries are going through difficult times in this economy, and any sort of external investment or organizational overhead can be hard to justify these days. But these mass-digitized collections could seriously reshape the nature of research and reading in the years to come. So I think it’s worth our putting some careful thought into how we want to influence that reshaping. Whatever happens in the courtroom in the next few months, we should marshal the information, the will, and the organization to make sure our readers will be well-served.