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leaders would be nervous about making concrete decisions that
would almost certainly upset some people in the library profes-
sion and the publishing business. But there's growing tension
between the heroic self-portrait that the DPLA presents to the
public---its website proclaims that it "will make the cultural and
scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all"---
and the tentativeness and equivocation that cloud what is actu-
ally being built. If the uncertainties about the DPLA's identity and
workings aren't cleared up, they could end up delaying or even
waylaying the project.
The Copyright Wall
Even if the views of the steering com-
mittee members were to come into
harmony tomorrow, the ultimate
form of the DPLA would remain hazy.
The biggest question hanging over the project
is one that can't be decided by executive fiat,
or even by methodical consensus building.
It's the same question that confronted Google
Book Search and that bedevils every other
e ort to create an expansive online library:
how do you navigate the country's onerous copyright restrictions?
"The legal problems are staggering," Darnton says.
The U.S. Congress passed the first federal copyright law in 1790.
Following English precedent, lawmakers sought to strike a reason-
able balance between the desire of writers to earn a living and the
benefit to society of giving people free access to the ideas of oth-
ers. The law allowed "Authors and Proprietors" of "Maps, Charts
and Books" to register a copyright in their work for 14 years and, if
they were still alive at the end of that term, to renew the copyright
for another 14 years. By limiting copy protections to a maximum
of 28 years, the legislators guaranteed that no book would remain
under private control for very long. And by requiring that copy-
rights be formally registered, they ensured that most works would
immediately enter the public domain. Of the 13,000 books pub-
lished in the country during the decade following the law's enact-
ment, fewer than 600 were registered for copyright, according to
historian John Tebbel.
Beginning in the 1970s, Congress developed a radically di erent
approach. Under pressure from film studios and other media and
entertainment companies, it passed a series of bills that dramati-
cally lengthened the term of copyright, not only for new books but
retroactively for books published throughout most of the last cen-
tury. Today, copyright in a work extends 70
years beyond the date of the author's death.
Congress also removed the requirement that
an author register a copyright---and, again, it
applied the change retroactively. Now a copy-
right is established for any work the moment
it's created. Even when writers have no inter-
est in claiming a copyright, they get one---and
their works remain out of the public domain
for decades. The upshot is that most books or
articles written since 1923 remain o limits
for unauthorized copying and distribution.
Other nations have enacted similar policies,
as part of an e ort to establish international standards for trade
in intellectual property.
Politicians make lousy futurists. As Google and the DPLA can
testify, the copyright changes put severe constraints on any attempt
to scan, store, and provide online access to books published dur-
ing most of the last 100 years. Moreover, the removal of the reg-
istration requirement means that millions of so-called orphan
books---ones whose copyright holders either are unknown or can't
be found---now lie beyond the reach of online libraries. Copyright
protections are vitally important to ensuring that writers and art-
ists have the wherewithal to create their works. But it's hard to
look at the current situation without concluding that the restric-
Cli s Notes on a Controversy
behind the DPLA
want to o er free
online access to the
vast amount of
in major libraries.
Will the DPLA run
its own servers with
digitized copies of
books, or will it be an
interface to libraries'
own online services?
The answer is not
The DPLA also has
to decide whether to
try to include recently
and whether it will
have material other
than books as well.
Because of copyright
restrictions, millions of
books are o limits to
online databases. Even
the metadata that
libraries use to orga-
nize their collections is
The DPLA will prob-
ably be rudimentary
when it opens next
Google says it still
hopes to find ways to
further its massive
Early copyright legislation
guaranteed that no book
would remain under
private control for
very long. Most works
immediately entered the
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