I just got done reading Jettro’s post on refactoring your library. And still being in the vacation mood, it reminded me of an idea that surfaces in my so-called brain every now and then: the public library for the twenty-first century.

Much like Jettro I have the habit of accumulating odds and ends of documentation over time (sometimes including entire books which tend to go out of date). Which means that I tend to run out of space after a while. At the same time all this documentation suffers from the problem of not being very portable, which means it doesn’t fit very well with our information at your fingertips age. All in all a digital form of storage available at any time and possibly to a large audience (or at least available to me from any place) would be far preferable. However, that solution runs afoul of copyright laws and treaties.

Looking at it in a more general way, there is a general contradiction between the historical rights of authors and the needs of information consumers in the modern age. In the following sections I will attempt to provide an overview of the reasons and interests in this situation and what I think would be a good idea for our modern age.


Copyright

Why copyright?

Let’s start right at the beginning by reviewing why we have copyright in the first place.

Copyright started in fifteenth century England. Until the fourteenth century, if you wrote something your only way of keeping your creation safe was by obscurity: show it to nobody, let nobody read it or hear you reading it. Now, for most of history that was not a great big problem; most people didn’t read, very few could write and what they did write they actually wanted heard (plays and stories) or was too complicated for most people to understand (early works of science). It was the time of the storyteller, the playwrite and the scribe (and in fact quite a large number of works from earlier centuries were lost due to lack of dissemination).

But in 1444 Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press and for the first time made it possible on a large scale to record and disseminate ideas, theories, stories, images and far more. For the first time ever what one man thought of might be carried across cities, countries and continents at a speed far beyond his control. And for the first time it became possible to steal ideas for ones own profit.

At first of course this was not a major problem. The only work of mass popularity available was the bible and nobody was really claiming ownership of that (although its large-scale dissemination would have huge repercussions a century later). But as other works spread, science started taking hold in southern Europe and wealth started to accumulate in the seafaring kingdoms of Europe, it became necessary to protect works from which one might actually derive profit. Which of course severely limited the dissemination of knowledge and so stood in the way of further development.

As progress took hold over centuries and Europe started to be a place for knowledge-capital again, it was becoming necessary to introduce a system whereby a person could make his works public without thereby giving up all control over that work an lose the possibility of deriving personal gain and recognition from it.

What is copyright exactly?

Copyright was the answer to this quandary and is more or less exactly what it sounds like: the right to copy a work. More specifically, copyright is defined as follows:

Copyright: The monopolistic right of the author of a work of science, art or literature to

  • publish and/or
  • disseminate

that work.

Copyright is a legal mechanism that allows an author of a work to make his work public in any way that he desires for his own personal gain and have government support to keep everybody else from stealing that work after it has been made public. This mechanism benefits the author in that he can profit from his work and still keep control of it. And at the same time it balances the needs of the author against the needs of knowledge consumers who can now access the work in question once they’ve gotten permission from the author, pass on their copy of the work (but only that copy) and quote or otherwise use the work as long as they give credit to the original author.

Copyright is a form of legal protection for authors which is given by national governments. As such, copyright is a matter of national law in every country. However, since most works are spread across borders nowadays (and have been for a while) there is also an international treaty that creates a protective framework for authors across most of the globe. This treaty is known as the Berne Convention and is governed by the World Intellectual Property Organization.

A modern age of publishing

Publishing and the rise of the Internet

The rise of copyright and the system of laws and treaties establishing copyright (especially since 1886) were a very reasonable and acceptable compromise between the needs of authors and knowledge consumers for a long time. The system allowed for the controlled but ever-growing flow of information, which in turn allowed more and more people access to all sorts of knowledge and allowed them to produce, record and disseminate more knowledge themselves and so on. It is fair to say that the technological revolution that has taken place on this planet starting with the Industrial Revolution would not have taken place without copyright.

However, in the 1960’s the continuous growth of knowledge of the last centuries resulted in a dramatic change of circumstances for authors of all works; the kind of change that had last been seen in the 1440’s. On October 29, 1969 two teams working for DARPA created the first part of the Internet and in so doing (although I’m sure nobody stopped to think about it at the time) created a whole new medium for disseminating works. A medium that, much like the movable type of five hundred years earlier, vastly increased the speed and ease with which any work might be disseminated amongst a huge number of people and which might also enable those people to understand those works far more than before.

Copyright worked well for a long, long time because it was a mechanism suited perfectly to the media available when it was invented. Works were available and could be disseminated under copyright from a relatively limited number of sources to a large audience which was, on the whole, capable of receiving but not of reproducing works (at least not in a way that would seriously threaten the livelihood of the authors). Also, the limited number of original sources of dissemination made it possible to institute a reasonable system of compensation for authors of works which were subject to mass dissemination (like songs broadcast on the radio). The introduction of the Internet made it possible for the first time for every dissemination of a work to result in a new source of dissemination with ease and speed. Copyright, although not encoded to be limited to a particular collection of media, was not prepared for that.

Open source, open standards, open everything

Of course, as usual, nobody noticed at first. For starters it took a while for the Internet to become a popular medium; that didn’t happen until the latter part of the 1990’s. Second, the dramatic impact of the Internet on traditional views on copyrightable material also required another development: the popularization of the idea of information freedom.

Freedom of information (i.e. the idea that information should be freely disseminated) started in earnest in the 1960’s as well at universities such as Berkeley, where the first generation of students to “grow up” with computers and networking saw the potential and ease of digital media in distributing data. This new idea took hold in many forms and led (among others) to the development of open source groups like the GNU, whose philosophy is that of free software.

The result of these developments was that the next generation grew up in a new, digitalized age with a whole new attitude towards works and intellectual property. Copyright had always been an understandable and reasonable concept because it fit the available media and it was hard to seriously violate copyright laws without trying (you cannot accidentally copy a whole book fifteen times). But in the new age, where copying is easy, copyright seems a lot less reasonable and a far greater limitation on the will of people who are used to easy access to everything. Which is a problem, since one cannot deny that the more freely information flows, the more and more varied use it finds and the more and more varied growth of knowledge results.

Supranationalism and the level, European playing field

There is one more recent change that I must mention that is relevant to what I want to propose. After the Second World War, the countries of Europe (and to some extent the world) realized that more and more often the world is faced with problems and challenges that surpass the traditional, national boundaries — and the abilities of nation states to deal with. For more and more things it is necessary to have supranational cooperation and a system of rules and regulations that don’t stop at the border.

Luckily, in Europe, we have something like that: we have a European Union. The European Union is a supranational organization dedicated to pursuing ever closer union among the nations of Europe. And part of that mission is to strive towards an ever more level playing field for people and businesses in all walks of life. To create a society on top of different societies with both cooperation and fair competition across traditional boundaries.

That same European Union is also charged with the task of creating a situation of ever-increasing opportunities on equal footing for all its citizens in this modern age. As such, the Union also faces the apparent clash between copyright and the need to disseminate information to stimulate development of the European society through science, industry, culture and education.

The European library

So, what do I think should be the answer? Where do I think the new balance should be struck? Well, I think that there is a huge opportunity right at our feet if we only dare see the circumstances of the day as a chance and not a problem. To recap the above, we are faced with the following:

  • A body (by necessity ever growing) of authors in need of protection of their rights
  • A body of knowledge consumers empowered by a new medium no longer to be constricted by the old ways of doing things and not feeling those old restrictions to be reasonable anymore
  • A new form of government, encompassing all the old and unifying many different people, rising on the need for cooperation between peoples

Now, call me crazy, but it seems to me that we have not only a problem, but the necessity and the means to solve that problem and a perfectly positioned group of people to take responsibility for implementing the solution.

Back when mass media was first introduced, copyright law faced similar problems as it does nowadays but on a more limited scale. The solution back then was to allow mass media dissemination of works and arrange for compensation at the source. We have the same situation today except that we have no organized source from which to arrange compensation, nor a large enough government institution to arrange compensation.

So what I propose is this: since the desire for dissemination of works exists among all the peoples of Europe, let it be a task of the European Union. Let it not fall to the Union to fight the tide by trying to enforce ancient copyright, but instead let it fall to the Union to arrange dissemination of all works to all European citizens through an online library offering every European citizen access to everything — books, music, movies, scientific papers, everything else, old, new, everything ever published in Europe before, now and in the future. And let it be a service that is paid for by the European citizens through common taxation — carried by all Europeans, free at point of use and with as much use as wanted or needed. We have the technology required (the Internet), the government required (the Union), the driving forces (the authors and the knowledge consumers). All that is required is the will to embrace a new way of thinking and the courage to let go of the old.

Now, just in case you think I’ve gone off my nut: I have no illusions that this is going to happen (or at least not anytime soon). But it is what I would like to have happen and what I think should happen.

Modern reading equipment

All of that aside, there’s another thing I would like to have happen to go with that European library: a big push in the electronic paper area. Or at least a vast improvement in Internet connectivity and devices, because I really dislike everything we use to gather information online nowadays. Both desktops and laptops are incredibly cumbersome to handle and force you to sit (or lie) in uncomfortable positions for far too long simply because you can’t make them move with your body and so must make your body accommodate these devices instead. As I already said, I don’t imagine we’ll have a European library anytime soon — so can’t we at least have devices that aren’t trying to cripple us instead?

 


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