Thursday, March 14, 2013

Outsourcing for content: are libraries sawing off the branch on which they sit?

In Why We Miss the First Sale Doctrine in Digital Libraries, John Palfrey, the president of the Digital Public Library of America’s board of directors, notes that in the digital world of today, libraries are increasingly losing control of ownership when it comes to books.  Since the Copyright Act of 1909, the creator of a work could only control the "first sale" or distribution of a material copy of that work”.  This means that once a copy had been sold, “the copyright owner can no longer stop that copy from being resold, lent, rented, or otherwise transferred to others”.  But nowadays, when it comes to e-books, libraries are in many cases only able to “rent” these – and legal and technological controls effect their ability to lend them.
In a recent post on his blog ("The problem is solutionism"), the technology-culture-business writer Nicholas Carr discusses virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s forthcoming book WhoOwns the Future?  (you can read about this rather colorful man here).  Here, we can see a convergence between Lanier’s concerns and the concerns of libraries:

“Lanier offers a more searching examination of the Internet’s defects in Who Owns the Future? The Net’s workings, he argues, have been shaped by an ideology that, although well-intentioned, has deformed our commercial and social relationships. By mistaking free information for freedom, the network’s designers and defenders have inadvertently created a system that centralizes power and profit. Companies like Google and Facebook take in billions of dollars by hosting online exchanges, while the people who actually create whatever is being exchanged — words, ideas, works of art — often get nothing. The joy of participation, they’re told, should be compensation enough.

As digital networks come to regulate more of the economy, Lanier sees a perverse dynamic taking hold. Wealth concentrates around those who control the servers and databases, whereas risk spreads outward to the masses. He points to the banking crisis of 2008 as an example. By erasing local market boundaries and controls, computerized financial systems helped funnel riches to a handful of bankers and traders — yet when the system collapsed, it was ordinary citizens who paid the bill."

“Wealth concentrates around those who control the servers and databases, whereas risk spreads outward to the masses.” What do you think about this phenomenon that Carr quotes Lanier describing?  Is he right?  As regards libraries, how important is it for libraries to focus on having ownership of materials – and knowing how to “do ownership” well – instead of simply paying rent for access?  What kinds of risks are we taking on by relinquishing our ownership of so many materials to privately-held companies?  And on the reverse side of the equation, should librarians be able to freely loan e-Books, for example, without any concern for “local… boundaries and controls”?

Is any sort of “middle ground” here possible?  Some have hopes that the Digital Public Library of America which Palfrey represents will be able to establish a “common good” beachhead of sorts vs a sea of private interests when it launches in 2013 and beyond (read more here).