Opt in for open access

There’s been much discussion online about Judge Chin’s long-awaited decision to reject the settlement proposed by Google and authors and publishers’ organizations over the Google Books service. Settlement discussions continue (and the court has ordered a status conference for April 25).  But it’s clear that it will be a while before this case is fully settled or decided.

Don’t count on a settlement to produce a comprehensive library

When the suit is finally resolved, it will not enable the comprehensive retrospective digital library I had been hoping for.  That, Chin clearly indicated, was an over-reach.  The  proposed settlement would have allowed Google to sell access to most pre-2009 books published in the English-speaking world whose rightsholders had not opted out.   But, as Chin wrote, “the case was about the use of an indexing and searching tool, not the sale of complete copyrighted works.”  The changes in the American copyright regime that the proposed settlement entailed, he wrote, were too sweeping for a court to approve.

Unless Congress makes changes in copyright law, then, a rightsholder has to opt in for a copyrighted book to be made readable on Google (or on another book site).  Chin’s opinion ends with a strong recommendation for the parties to craft a settlement that would largely be based on “opt-in”.  Of course, an “opt in” requirement necessarily excludes orphan works, where one cannot find a rightsholder to opt in.  And as John Wilkin recently pointed out, it’s likely that a lot of the books held by research libraries are orphan works.

Don’t count on authors to step up spontaneously

Chin expects that many authors will naturally want to opt in to make their works widely available, perhaps even without payment.  “Academic authors, almost by definition, are committed to maximizing access to knowledge,” he writes.  Indeed, one of the reasons he gives for rejecting the settlement is the argument, advanced by Pamela Samuelson and some other objectors, that the interests of academic and other non-commercially motivated authors are different from those of the commercial organizations that largely drove the settlement negotiations.

I think that Chin is right that many authors, particularly academics, care more about having their work appreciated by readers than about making money off of it.  And even those who want to maximize their earnings on new releases may prefer freely sharing their out of print books to keeping them locked away, or making a pittance on paywall-mediated access.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll see all, or even most, of these works “opted in” to a universally accessible library.  We’ve had plenty of experience with institutional repositories showing us that even when authors are fine in principle with making their work freely available, most will not go out of their way to put their work in open-access repositories, unless there are strong forces mandating or proactively encouraging it.

Don’t count on Congress to solve the problem

The closest analogue to a “mandate” for making older books generally available would be orphan works legislation.    If well crafted, such a law could make a lot of books available to the public that now have no claimants, revenue, or current audience, and I hope that a coalition can come together to get a good law passed. But an orphan works law could take years to adopt (indeed, it’s already been debated for years). There’s no guarantee on how useful or fair the law that eventually gets passed would be, after all the committees and interest groups are done with it.  And even the best law would not cover many books that could go into a universal digital library.

Libraries have what it takes, if they’re proactive

On the other hand, we have an unprecedented opportunity right now to proactively encourage authors (academic or otherwise) to make their works freely available online.  As Google and various other projects continue to scan books from library collections, we now have millions of these authors’ books deposited in “dark” digital archives.  All an interested author has to do is say the word, and the dark  copy can be lit up for open access.  And libraries are uniquely positioned to find and encourage the authors in their communities to do this.

It’s now pretty easy to do, in many cases.  Hathi Trust, a coalition of a growing number of research institutions, currently has over 8 million volumes digitized from member libraries.  Most of the books are currently inaccessible due to copyright.  But they’ve published a permission agreement form that an author or other rightsholder can fill out and send in if they want to make their book freely readable online.  The form could be made a bit clearer and more visible, but it’s workable as it is.  As editor of The Online Books Page, I not infrequently hear from people who want to share their out of print books, or those of their ancestors, with the world.  Previously, I had to worry about how the books would get online.  Now I usually can just verify it’s in Hathi’s collection, and then refer them to the form.

Google Books also lets authors grant access rights through their partner program.  Joining the program is more complicated than sending in the Hathi form, and it’s more oriented towards selling books than sharing them.  But Google Books partners can declare their books freely readable in full if they wish, and can give them Creative Commons licenses (as they can with Hathi).  Google has even more digitized books in its archives than Hathi does.

So, all those who would love to see a wide-ranging (if not entirely comprehensive), globally accessible digital library now have a real opportunity to make it happen.  We don’t have to wait for Congress to act, or  some new utopian digital library to arise.  Thanks to mass digitization, library coalitions like Hathi’s, and the development of simplified, streamlined rights and permissions processes, it’s easier than ever for interested authors (and heirs, and publishers) to make their work freely available online.  If those us involved in libraries, scholarship, and the open access movement work to open up our own books, and those of our colleagues, we can light up access to the large, universal digital library that’s now waiting for us online.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.
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