Friday, January 23, 2009

Our Digital Archive

This is from an interesting article in the recent New York Review of Books:

Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly—a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information. Google has no serious competitors. Microsoft dropped its major program to digitize books several months ago, and other enterprises like the Open Knowledge Commons (formerly the Open Content Alliance) and the Internet Archive are minute and ineffective in comparison with Google. Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.
Basically, the issue is that Google has won a monopoly on all digitized books and articles because they had the deep pockets to weather a gigantic class-action suit representing all the copyright owners. No one else on the horizon has the resources to replicate either the technical feat of digitizing our print archive, or the legal feat of settling with all copyright holders. Sadly, this massive privatization of our print heritage has unfolded this way because current copyright law has extended the copyrights for everything published in almost a century -- and not just for the small amount of things which stay in print that long. Nothing passes into the public domain any longer. This terribly short-sighted public policy has now inadvertently created a mammoth new monopoly which may not be easily undone. It is an unfortunate way to have dealt with our digital heritage. One can imagine much better ways to set public policy.

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