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On MIT’s Technology Review, Nicholas Carr takes an in-depth look at the creation of the Digital Public Library of America, an attempt at a non-commercial universal electronic library (which I also mentioned last month) that hopes to provide universal access to as much of human knowledge as it can. Carr first looks at Google’s attempt to create Google Book Search, and the negotiated settlement that was thrown out as too overreaching. Though Google is moving ahead with its legal defense, the search market has shifted toward social networking meaning that a book search might not be as attractive to Google as it once was.

Brainchild of respected academic (and Google Books critic) Robert Darnton, the DPLA seeks to avoid some of the problematic aspects of Google Books by being noncommercial. In the commercial Google Books operation, Darnton saw the future potential for the same sort of overcharging that academic journals are doing now. Even if Google currently wasn’t inclined that way, there was no guaranteeing that whoever took the reins down the line would feel the same way.

But the library initiative has been running into its own problems. For one thing, a librarian industry group asked that the initiative change its name so it doesn’t lend the impression that regular public libraries can be “replaced” by a digital version and make it even harder for them to get funding. Indeed, it’s still not entirely clear exactly how the library will operate—to what extent it will provide information itself versus redirect to materials hosted on other libraries’ computers, for example, or what media other than books it will store. Will it make materials available directly to the public, or only provide back-end services for other organizations?

But the biggest problem facing the DPLA may be the same one facing Google Books: the question of copyright. While the DPLA’s nonprofit status does open some doors to it that remain shut to Google Books (such as possibly working out the kind of licensing agreements with publishers that have given the commercial Google such trouble), it doesn’t give it carte blanche to offer works that are still under copyright. Having a truly comprehensive digital library could require Congress to pass new laws.

Politicians make lousy futurists. As Google and the DPLA can testify, the copyright changes put severe constraints on any attempt to scan, store, and provide online access to books published during most of the last 100 years. Moreover, the removal of the registration requirement means that millions of so-called orphan books—ones whose copyright holders either are unknown or can’t be found—now lie beyond the reach of online libraries. Copyright protections are vitally important to ensuring that writers and artists have the wherewithal to create their works. But it’s hard to look at the current situation without concluding that the restrictions have become so broad as to hamper the very creativity they were supposed to encourage. "Innovation is often being restricted today for legal reasons, not technological ones," says David K. Levine, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthor of Against Intellectual Monopoly. In many areas, he says, "people aren’t creating new products because they fear a nightmare of copyright litigation."

And the restriction could affect more than just the materials themselves. Many libraries purchase or license metadata from commercial suppliers, and aren’t necessarily careful about tracking what metadata came from where—which means problems for the DPLA when it comes to sorting out the issues of who owns the rights.

I’m not exactly going to hold my breath waiting for those new laws. Given that every copyright change in the last few decades has been in favor of more and longer copyright, and there’s a very powerful lobby around to keep it that way, I’ll be very surprised if that ever reverses. Still, it’s good to see an alternative to Google Books on its way to launching, even if there are a lot more questions than answers surrounding the service right now.

 
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