Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Banality is progress

James Boyle, Cultural environmentalism? Financial Times, February 20, 2006. Excerpt:
The United States’ ludicrous proposal for a “Webcasting Right” shows how much life there is in the old style of politics without evidence or democratic debate. But I see grounds for optimism. The existence of forums like this one shows a recognition that these are issues which deserve a public airing, and about which reasonable people can disagree. There are now a host of civil society, scientific, and civil rights groups that deal with these issues – not just the trade associations who have long held sway. We have our equivalents of Greenpeace, but also the National Trust, or the Conservation Societies. Industry groups have, slowly, come to understand that their interests on these issues are not monolithic; think of the differences between IBM and Microsoft, or the hardware companies and the record companies. Scientists and scholars are now more actively involved in shaping the rules that regulate their activities. And as intellectual property is reaching out to touch everyone who is a participant in digital culture creation, citizens are asking for more of a say. If the debate is not yet balanced or fair, it is at least now a debate, not a one-sided lecture from the content industry. Three concrete events in the last year make me think that the shift will continue. The first is a matter of private action. Google’s plans to make books as searchable as the world wide web present a classic case in which the conflicts will be highlighted for society. Can Google do this without paying permission fees to every publisher, something that would doom the project? As I explain elsewhere, I think the answer is “yes” but either way, the ideas at stake will be made concrete in a way that should transform the public debate for the better. Second, the European Commission released a report on the Database Directive, a report I featured in a previous column. For the first time I can remember, a governmental body assessed intellectual property policy on the basis of empirical evidence, rather than faith and anecdote. In any other field – drugs, the environment, traffic safety – this would be unremarkable. In intellectual property, it is both shocking and heartening. Finally, the US Register of Copyrights released a report on Orphan Works – copyrighted material whose owners cannot be identified or found and which is thus extremely hard to use legally. Orphan works constitute the majority of 20th century culture and the Copyright Office made an extremely balanced set of recommendations that we need to amend copyright law to make using those works easier and less risky. These initiatives may seem banal. Arguing that making works searchable would be good, that policy should be balanced and based on evidence, that copyright should not stand in the way of the dissemination it is supposed to promote – it hardly sounds like a radical agenda. It isn’t. But from where we have been in the last 10 years, banality looks great.