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Looting the Library

If publishing companies’ nefarious plans succeed, libraries will cease to exist.

A few years ago, i was walking down the street in one of Manila’s poorer neighborhoods when I came upon a gaping hole where a sewer grate used to be. It was an experience doubtless familiar to many who have traveled in the Third World: someone had presumably looted a humble-but essential-piece of the city’s infrastructure. It brought home to me not only what a robust infrastructure we take for granted in the West, but also how easily it can erode.

I am reminded of that missing sewer grate by an all-out battle brewing here in the United States-only the gaping hole we’re threatened with is in the stacks of our public libraries. And in this case it’s the publishing industry doing the looting. As we plunge into the digital realm, the nation’s 16,000 public libraries are striving to uphold their tradition as protectors of public access to new books and articles. But publishers, in an increasingly bald, frontal assault on the library’s mission, have something very different in mind: a pay-per-use model for information content that will largely shut libraries out.

The battle is being waged on many fronts, from legislative initiatives and lawsuits to the publishing industry’s unilateral pursuit of copy-protection technologies that will keep users-including libraries-from sharing digital content. One of the loudest and most shameful voices in the debate is that of Patricia Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. The former Colorado congresswoman enjoys a distinguished 12-term record of championing women’s rights and sponsoring legislation such as the Family Medical Leave Act. But in her latest incarnation as a front for the publishing industry, Schroeder has been quoted as saying that publishers have to “learn to push back” against libraries, which she portrays as an organized band of pirates!

 At her most hyperbolic, Schroeder has implied that if libraries let people borrow electronic versions of books and journal articles, there will be “no copyright left.”

There’s no question that publishers need to control content in cyberspace. But to hear Schroeder tell it, legions of librarygoers are primed to topple the publishing industry. She conjures up visions of readers pirating electronic copies of the latest works by E. O. Wilson and Maya Angelou faster than Napster users swapped songs by Metallica and Britney Spears. Her industry’s answer to this far-fetched scenario is a preemptive campaign to make people pay for any and all access to published works-even those borrowed from libraries.

Just look at the fight over the back issues of journals and magazines. Following a legal precept called the “first-sale doctrine,” once libraries have purchased a given copy of a magazine or book, they have been free to archive it and make it available to their patrons. But now, when libraries subscribe to a journal online, their access to back issues is at the vendor’s discretion. Since publishers now see libraries as a threat to their ability to profit from this body of published work, they are trying to overturn the first-sale doctrine. What’s more, journals and magazines are just a piece of a larger picture; both sides know that any new rules will likely govern access to e-books as well.

Perhaps even more troubling is the publishing industry’s wholesale attack on the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, whereby parts of works can be legally quoted or copied for noncommercial and educational purposes. Take, for example, a scheme spelled out recently by Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which counts HarperCollins Publishers among its vast media holdings. Chernin is calling for legislation that, according to Publishers Weekly, “guarantees publishers’ control of not only the integrity of an original work, but of the extent and duration of users’ access to that work, the availability of data about the work and restrictions on forwarding the work to others.” Put in plain English, Chernin is advocating a world that precludes the possibility of libraries as we know them, save perhaps as repositories for the fast-aging hard copies they already hold.

We will undoubtedly hear much more from Schroeder and Chernin as this complex battle is joined. However, the answer is emphatically not to abandon the core mission of the library but to reinterpret it for these times. Whatever systems are developed to control the exchange of published work in the digital realm, we need to insist on provisions for the kind of public access that libraries have traditionally made possible. Too much is at stake to let the publishing industry undo the careful copyright balance we have all come to rely upon.

All of which brings me back to that Manila sewer grate. Just as residents there came to treat gaping holes in the street as a normal-even acceptable-condition, we could get used to a world without public libraries. But the absence of free and accessible information would leave a gaping hole in our “infostructure” and result in an impoverished world. It is a world we can-and should-resist.

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