Digital Grab, Part II

I should clarify that Professor Darnton’s views and mine do not diverge completely. The man is far better educated and far more of a scholar than I. Nevertheless I’m going to presume to agree and disagree.

Here’s where we converge. He objects to private enterprise making money from information that is “free.” He notes that a great many people are nervous that one corporate entity will be able to control so much knowledge when Google finishes its digitization project. In my view It’s a version of Big Brother. We overload you with information and data mine your searches. Professor Darnton also thinks it’s OK for Google to make money off public domain material by selling advertising on the pages. That part makes me feel queasy, but I’ll concede that the marketplace certainly allows the sale of ads next to the pages of The Book of Common Prayer (which was digitized from the library at Harvard’s divinity school). Best of all, the professor takes the anti-trust view that Google should not have a monopoly on digitizing the world. To that I say “Amen.” More to come about that issue later.

The learned professor and I part ways over his objections to copyright. He says, “Those of us who are responsible for research libraries have a clear view of a common goal: we want to open up our collections and make them available to readers everywhere.” Boston public library, he notes, has “Free to all” above the door. Do the Harvard libraries say, “Pay $200 if you’re not a university student or professor?” But he thinks that writers, song writers, and creative people in general should be limited having control for 28 years.

Revisiting Monday’s argument, why should drug companies get 20 years to make billions and billions while most freelance writers and their estates won’t earn 1/100th of that amount even with the copyright at life plus seventy years. (The average freelance writer earns far less that $20,000 a year.) I can understand cynics who think Disney Co. should not be able to keep Mickey and Minnie and Donald D. out of the public domain for the next hundred years. But really, why can’t Stephen King’s children and even his grandchildren derive some benefit from his talent just as the progeny of the Rockefellers, the Hiltons, and old Joe Kennedy enjoy the benefits of material wealth developed by their parents and grandparents? Kelo vs. City of New London notwithstanding, many generations can live off royalties paid by oil companies for the lease of land, and off the stock dividends from profits. I understand that intellectual property is different but isn’t it more valuable for being plucked from the garden ideas rather than from the soil in someone’s backyard or off the neighboring mountain top?

Professor Darnton must have wandered over to the other side of what he calls his “jeremianic- utopian reflections” when he decries the cost of subscriptions to academic journals. He cites annual prices from less than $3,500 to nearly $26,000. Subscription fees have forced libraries to cut back on their purchase of monographs (mostly published by university presses), which in turn limits the number of outlets for young professors. If as he asserted, faculty members write these papers mostly to advance their careers, what is to prevent them from publishing online? The answer is that prestige comes through publication by an established firm, not by a vanity press. But if the aim is dissemination of knowledge, then ignore the prestige issue and publish away.

Back, briefly, to the monopoly argument. Professor Darnton is worried that Google may do what pretty much every other monopoly has done over the years by offering low-cost or free digital service to libraries and then hiking the price when customers become dependent. The settlement of the lawsuit filed by the rights holders should include a provision that would prohibit Google from so doing and allow government approval of any rate structure, just as states do with regulated utilities.

And one point of minutia: The Republic of Letters may have produced the major literary works of the eighteenth century, but there were any number of writers who could not be admitted to the Republic by virtue of sex, race, etc., who nevertheless were writing and being published, most notably Phillis Wheatley.

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