Richard K. Johnson: Free our libraries!
The problem of commercial control is illustrated by the plight of public domain works.
These works belong to the public. They are, by intention, not copyright protected and
may be used by anyone for any purpose without asking permission. The public domain is
a rich resource and an essential foundation for the Internet public library. It includes
centuries of great literature and is a chronicle of civilization and learning.
Before the Internet, there was little argument over what people could do with public
domain works. They could do anything. But technology makes it possible to impose new
technical and contractual protections that can be applied willy-nilly to in-copyright and
public domain works alike. The lawyers and economists call this the “enclosure” of the
public domain and it looms large as the future of the Internet public library plays out.
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For example, companies that are scanning library collections have required users to gain
online access to books solely via proprietary search engines. They also have prohibited
users from employing third-party computing tools such as screen readers for the visually
impaired or scholarly text analysis tools. In effect, they are securing and enforcing a
monopoly on the digital texts of works that are in the public domain. Of course, other
businesses might also scan a library’s collections, but this is a substantial undertaking
and, as a practical matter, isn’t apt to happen anytime soon. […]
The Internet has given us a glimpse of what universal online access to library collections
could mean to people from all walks of life—how it could advance education, strengthen
economies, and improve lives. But if copyright exemptions and other public interests get
pushed aside, that breathtaking potential will never be realized.
No matter how hard they try, libraries and businesses may never find a suitable middle
ground where shareholders and the public interest are both winners in the commercial
digitization of library collections. We may awaken one day to find our digital heritage
has become private property instead of a public good.
To prevent that risk, we need new funding strategies, coordinated library action, and
forward-looking principles to guide us. It’s time to sort out the right roles and
responsibilities for companies, libraries, governments, and private funders and to get
about the work of building an Internet public library that puts the public first.