Ti 26.08.2008 @ 18:05admin

Commission Proposal on a Directive for Term Extension. Digital Libraries.

For about ten years now, it has been technically possible to create large-scale digital collections of archival materials which are freely accessible on the web. One of the best known is “Project Gutenberg”, which digitises books. On a national scale, there is the Finnish Historical Newspaper Library, which contains the entire content of all newspapers published in Finland up to 1890, over 900,000 pages of text.
Old newspapers are printed on paper which has become so fragile that libraries normally do not allow their customers to handle them at all. Anyone who has ever attempted to struggle through microfilms to find information from old newspapers knows that it is a difficult and time-consuming task. Having all this accessible on your own computer screen can be a revelation. It lets you work in your own home, according to your old schedule (no opening hours), and broadens immensely the scope of documents you can study.
Large-scale digital collections of sound recordings are still uncommon, but they are growing rapidly. One of the best-known is the Cylinder Preservation and Digitisation Project of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Phonograph cylinders were made from the 1880s to the 1910s, and very few institutions today have the necessary equipment to play them.  I have been told that the Santa Barbara cylinder site has been an immense success; it has attracted thousands of listeners who get a unique view of musical life a hundred years ago – something they couold not get elsewhere.
A related project is the Virtual Gramophone project of the Canadian National Library, which offers a large selection of historical Canadian recordings to the public.
So far digital audio collections have focused on early, almost prehistoric material, but the technology is so new that many projects are still at the planning stage. The AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music in the UK, for instance, is hoping to make its huge collection of classical recordings available for researchers. Many digital library projects have an audio component. Because these projects are non commercial, they take a longer time to mature, but they will be coming -  if the law will allow it.
Why is excessively long copyright protection harmful to society? The digital library projects vividly illustrate the problem.
Copyright is a “mini-monopoly” like a patent: it gives the author and his publisher an exclusive right to control (most) uses of a work for a limited period of time. Copyright has been considered necessary because it is believed to encourage creativity.
The other side of copyright is “public domain”. Works which are no longer protected by copyright are in the public domain. Public domain works include most traditional culture, the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the compositions of Beethoven, the recordings of Caruso, historical newspapers, and so on. Public domain works can be freely used, like inventions which are no longer patented; they are the soil which nurtures new creation.
When copyright lasts too long, it will no longer encourage creation. On the contrary, it prevents present creators from learning from the work of their predecessors. It has been argued that income from established works gives publishers the resources necessary for new investment, but for every old work which still is commercially valuable there are thousands which are not. These works are also protected; they cannot be used for anything – illustration, education, material for new works - without the permission of the rights owners. Often the rights owners, grandchildren of the creators, can no longer be traced with reasonable effort. Publishers have gone out of business, documents lost, and so on.
We are now entering an era when technology would permit us to make large parts of our cultural heritage available on the net. The Commission’s proposal would still keep older recordings (probably up to 1959) permanently in the public domain, so it will take a while for the world’s archivists to put this material on the net. In many cases the recorded works are still protected, but their terms will also run out one day, and there are already numerous recordings of classical and traditional music which are totally free.
The effects of the proposal will only become obvious in a decade or so. Many recordings made in the 1960s will still be protected, because record companies have at some time reissued them or sold them on the internet. Other records will now be in the public domain. No one will know which is which, because there is no requirement to register these actions. The expansion of digital libraries will come to a halt.

The EU Commission is selling our future.


Additional comments can be found in my previous blogs

 My next blog will focus on the rights of co-authors

Pekka Gronow

Pekka Gronow toimi asiantuntijana radion äänitearkistoissa. Hän kirjoitti blogissaan äänitteiden historiaan, arkistointiin ja tekijänoikeuteen liittyvistä asioista.