Last, the Metropolitan New York Library Council held its Annual Meeting at the vertical campus of Baruch College/CUNY. [Disclosure: I’m President of the board, although the staff does all the real work.]
METRO has turned this into quite an event, filled all day with various breakout sessions. But there is still a keynote address, given this year by Jessamyn West who discussed her views on copyrights and how libraries are and will continue to be affected by copyright law.
You can see the slides from her presentation at http://www.librarian.net/talks/metro/ , although you can’t see and hear what she had to say about each. You can get a flavor for her entertaining presentation style by noting her concluding slide.
If I had to summarize her message to the library world and to others in one sentence, it is this: aggressively apply your “fair use” rights for copyrighted material. (You can read this article for a summary of “fair use”.)
The Wikipedia entry on fair use provides this conventional summary:
“In United States copyright law, fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship.”
The traditional copyright that the writers of the US Constitution had in mind – fourteen years for printed material – has been buffeted by the pressures of copyright owners, on the one hand, and developments in technology on the other.
The copyright owners have succeeded in extending the life of copyrights to seven decades after the death of the original copyright holder. They have also tended to generalize what was a fairly limited monopoly into the much larger concept of “intellectual property”, which often translates into a monopoly on an idea.
The Internet, of course, has made things more complicated. There is the increasing digitization (scanning) of existing printed material. There is also an ever increasing percentage of published material that is born digital. The Internet has also made possible a boom in self-published works, usually in e-book form.
All of these trends mean that traditional copyrights, which were managed by a small set of big publishers of printed books can no longer be so easily managed. Readers can more easily copy digital books than printed books, so having a copyright is no longer as strong a protection of a monopoly as it used to be.
Indeed, the very idea of a fixed book – something with a finite number of printed pages, contained within hard covers – is challenged by the digital form. We are already seen and can expect to see more mash-ups that might take a paragraph or a chapter here and another from there and so on in order to create something that some readers might find more efficient than reading all the original material.
Who owns what in that mash-up? How much can be used from the original sources? How are rights affected if the original material is modified in some way? What if those original sources are also some form of mash-up? These are just some of the questions that will grist for the legal mills in the future.
Indeed, whether ideas can be considered non-sharable, protectable property will be one of the big policy debates of this century – perhaps on a par with the labor vs. capital conflicts of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ms. West’s presentation gave the attendees of METRO’s meeting a taste of what that battle will be like.
© 2014 Norman Jacknis