The American Library Association (ALA) has issued its response to the introduction of the Copyright Office for the Digital Economy Act (CODE Act), designed to reform the dysfunctional U.S. copyright system, and its evaluation is not a very positive one.
“For more than 20 years, content creators, rights holders, legislators and public users alike have acknowledged that the U.S. Copyright Office needs to modernize its technological capabilities for the 21st century,” said ALA president Courtney Young, in the ALA official statement on the CODE Act. “Unfortunately, the recently introduced Copyright Office for the Digital Economy Act does little to address significant technology challenges impacting the U.S. Copyright Office. The bill’s proposal to make the Copyright Office an independent agency does not address the longstanding problems facing the agency, specifically that the Copyright Office’s information technology systems are woefully inadequate in serving both rights holders and the public in the digital environment.”
Naturally, the bill’s backers are rather more positive about their plan. Congressman Tom Marino (PA-10), one of the bill’s sponsors, declared that the CODE Act is a key step forward in “providing the U.S. Copyright Office the autonomy it needs to elevate our country’s copyright system to one that is efficient, fair and exemplary to the rest of the world. Some may say this a tough sell in Congress but we have laid the groundwork for a solid piece of legislation that everyone can get on board with.” The Copyright Alliance lobby group, meanwhile, congratulated “Representatives Chu and Marino for their leadership in releasing a discussion draft of the Copyright Office for the Digital Economy Act (CODE Act). The discussion draft thoughtfully outlines how the structure and role of the Copyright Office might be updated to serve the needs of the public in the digital age.”
This was not ALA’s view. “We urge the U.S. Congress to support the investment necessary to transition the Copyright Office from a paper-based system to a digital system that uses the most effective digital technology, systems and software–to enable commerce, promote access to content, and to inspire the creators and artists of the future who wish to make use of the previous works,” Courtney Young continued. “A successful overhaul of the Copyright Office’s information technology infrastructure cannot be achieved by securing the Copyright Office’s independence from the Library of Congress. We have a much more important problem to solve that cannot be fixed by changing the address of the Copyright Office.”
We’ve long needed to revise our copyright laws for digital and the Internet. But the moment you leave the simple constitutional framework about rewarding creators to serve the public interest, the copyright debate turns into a mess.
Every other group that’s in this dispute thinks, often with dubious logic, that their interest is the public interest. Google with their book scanning wanted to toss out virtually the entire Berne Convention on copyright to serve their—and just their—interests, essentially abrogating the copyright of any out-of-print title.
I happened to be involved in that one, playing a key role as one of seven authors who got the Google book settlement delayed. I was utterly astonished at the utter incompetence and sheer laziness of the news media, general and trade, about what the settlement meant. The typical reporter, I discovered, wasn’t doing anything more that repeating what Google was saying in its highly deceptive FAQ. He hadn’t bothered to read the actually settlement itself. He simply echoed what his peers were saying.
Alas, we’re likely to see similar news media incompetence as this new debate heats up. The above illustrates that. Much of what the ALA says in bosh and should be treated as such. I’ve been writing and publishing since 1999. The LOC has long had and used the technology needed to do what it needs to do as the LOC and to serve copyrighting purposes. I apply for a LOC control number for my books and get it the next day. That’s not a primitive paper flow and needs no improvement.
What a copyright office free from LOC can’t do is serve agendas that the ALA wants but that have little to do with offering copyright protection to authors. There are hints in those remarks that the ALA wants the LOC to do what Google tried to do (with the help of various university libraries), which was to ride roughshod over an author’s copyright rights when his book falls out of print but is still in copyright.
Libraries have an axe to grind. Universities have theirs connected to the use of texts in classes. Publishers have agendas connected to their “ownership” of a copyright that may not be best for authors or the public, particularly in a digital age. Disney, ever the greedy one, would like to profit from its copyrights virtually forever. In every case, they key person they want to cheat, citing a string of excuses, is the author.
We’re seen one aspect of what is likely to be a heated fuss here. Both libraries and Internet groups such as Google think keeping copyright in the Library of Congress is in their interest, hence this protest. Libraries have an “in” with the world’s largest library. Google has long been cultivating the LOC.
Personally, I think keeping copyright under the Library of Congress makes as much sense as putting the FAA under the USAF. Copyright needs to join patents and trademarks as part of the Department of Commerce. It’s a business issue.
And it’s the content creators, meaning authors, who need to have near complete say over how these changes play out. Since they want their books to sell, their interest coincides quite well with the public interest. The interest of these other players do not. And virtually all the other issues can be settled by requiring an author’s permission, either with payment or without. No blanket “right to” by any of the other interest groups.
Note that in the article above there’s mention of “to make use of the previous works” rather than “works no longer under copyright.” A clever journalist (both of them) would begin to ask questions about that. Behind that lies a major issue. Can some group, here the LOC, create a new digital edition of an author’s work and offer it to the public without his or her permission. I and apparently most authors say no. Google and the ALA say yes in muddled and evasive ways that deceive the typically clueless journalist.
That doesn’t mean the end of the world for libraries and the like. My latest book, a way to improve the morale of nurses in hospitals, Senior Nurse Mentor, is free in digital where I can make it free, including to all libraries. Amazon wouldn’t let me make it free, but will forcibly price match those other free offers as soon as someone complains about the price difference. (Go ahead with my blessings.) I plan to make what money I can on the $10.95 print version. What matters to me is getting its message out.
But as the author, I’m the one who decides that pricing and availability not anyone else. History is on my side. In a 1763 speech in the House of Commons, William Pitt made an important statement about our right to be free in our homes from government intrusion:
“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”
I feel much the same about copyright. Aside from fair use for legitimate purposes, what I write is mine and mine alone. Once written, it belongs to me and those who enter to copy may do so only with my permission. The ban on entry that applied to ancient monarchs applies with equal force to today’s LOC, Google, ALA and all the special interest groups who think they should be able to ride roughshod over my right to decide who can copy what I have written.
Seen that way, this dispute is actually quite simple. These other interests groups did not write these books and have no copyright interests in them at all, whatever they might claim. If they want to do something, they must ask and get permission from the author. Copyright is just like entering that poor man’s cottage. They must ask “May I.”
I have little respect for anyone with any other POV.
–Michael W. Perry, who comes from a long line of rebellious yeoman farmers.