Re-Monopolizing the Public Domain

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2009/01/another-publicly-funded-digitization.html

The Burney Collection of 17th and 18th newspapers was digitized in a public-private partnership, but the results are TA rather than OA. (Thanks to Glyn Moody.) From a JISC press release (January 13):

The largest single online collection of English news media from the 17th and 18th centuries, the Burney Collection, is now available free of charge for the first time to Higher and Further Education institutions and Research Councils across the UK….
Digitised through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the British Library, then developed and hosted online by Gale/Cengage Learning, the digital version of the Burney Collection has been purchased in perpetuity by JISC Collections on behalf of the UK academic and research community at a national level….

Comment. Publicly-funded digitization projects have a lot to learn from publicly-funded research projects. The same principle that requires OA for publicly-funded research requires OA for publicly-funded digitization, especially when the works being digitized are in the public domain. The principle applies when “all or part” of the funding is from taxpayers. When this principle would scare off private funders, and the public funding isn’t enough to complete the project, then we can offer the private funder a temporary revenue stream from a toll booth on public property, in exchange for its investment, by analogy with the embargo periods on publicly-funded research. But like an embargo, this is a compromise with the public interest and must expire. If it doesn’t expire, then for some fraction of the cost of digitization, private companies could essentially buy exclusive rights to works in the public domain. The damage is notable even when the originals are available in non-digital form. But the damage is severe when the originals, as here, are rare and fragile and could never be viewed by most users in non-digital form.

This is absolutely right!


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