Tuesday, April 30, 2013

All Your Books Are Belong To Us

There's an old saying that "knowledge is power."  However, long before anyone had written up a job description for an "intellectual property" lawyer, people were battling over who should and should not have access to knowledge.
New technologies continue to amaze. Sometimes, they result from our ability to use software to create web-based mash-ups between various databases.

In other instances (from medical research to open source software) the learning curve has been dramatically shortened by easier access to ideas and innovative tools. A perfect example is Erin Li's brief documentary on Invisible Light (check out Yanko Design's portable window socket).

Advances in science and technology can provoke radical changes in the status quo.
Recent advances in genome sequencing, stem cell therapy, and 3D printing have opened up a huge number of possibilities. Alas, new inventions can also lead to sudden and unexpected obsolescence.

As new technology breaks down old barriers, a certain kind of corporate hubris starts to hog the spotlight.
Recently, while watching Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz's last film, Night Across the Street, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I was struck by a sequence in which two young boys take Beethoven into a cinema so he can watch parts of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). To a child in an absurdist film, this makes perfect sense.

However, to scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs obsessed with finding a cure, achieving a breakthrough, or being first to market, there is often a convenient assumption of historic inevitability. When asked why they think they have the right to do something, they frequently respond "Because we can."

Corporate attorneys are all for protecting their client's intellectual property rights. But when it comes to trampling someone else's intellectual property rights, that loss can sometimes be regarded as collateral damage.

Ethical challenges continue to arise in the wild frontier of digital media. Although its corporate motto may warn "Don't be evil," even Google can ride roughshod on the rights of others in its quest to do good. A new documentary by Ben Lewis entitled Google and the World Brain takes its inspiration from a collection of essays written during the 1930s by H.G. Wells entitled World Brain and the monumental scale of the Google Books Library Project.

With publishers of digital media desperately seeking new ways to monetize their content on the Internet, issues of copyright infringement (whether such acts are occurring in the for-profit or non-profit arenas) are a growing field of contention. In its brief life as a peer-to-peer file sharing serviceNapster (which was launched in 1999 and shut down by the Ninth Circuit Court in 2001) ran into legal trouble over copyright infringement. An d yet there is no doubt that Napster had a profound impact on the music industry (iTunes was launched in January of 2001).

In 2002, Google signed deals with libraries at the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Stanford University in the United States; the Bodleian Library in the United Kingdom, and the National Library of Catalonia in Spain. It then began scanning their books.

Unfortunately, Google ran into legal problems when it scanned more than six million books that were still protected by copyright law without contacting or offering compensation to their authors (one wonders how their highly-paid legal staff failed to spot any liability for the company's actions). Although Google still scans out-of-copyright books, the company's master plan was effectively stopped by legal action (the Authors Guild is suing Google for up to $2 billion in damages for scanning copyrighted books). As Lewis explains:
"For three years, I thought long and hard about how to make a film about the Internet. The Net is a unique phenomenon, unprecedented in history. It has brought us many marvelous things: instant access to all kinds of information, culture and communities. But I have also been struck by how the Internet also takes things from us without asking. For a long time, nobody has seemed to notice that. I wanted to make a film that alerted an audience to perils, as well as the paradise of the Internet. But how? The Internet is difficult to visualize (its stories revolve around emails, blogs and servers). Many of the newspaper articles that criticize it are sensationalist and written in the future tense or the subjunctive, i.e. they imagine a danger that might arise one day in the future.

Documentaries need concrete stories, with personal testimonies, as well as explanation and polemic from theorists and commentators. The 10-year story of Google Books offered me a narrative that acts as a spine for the film as well as a strong vocabulary of visual images. But Google Books was not the only story I wanted to tell. I used it as a 'washing line' on which to hang other tales of uploading vast amounts of knowledge onto the Internet (Project GutenbergWikipedia, Baidu's library, and Brewster Kahle's Internet archive) as well as a way to discuss the big themes of the Net, privacy, surveillance, monopoly, and so on.
In terms of the narrative, there is a terrific arc. Google started out scanning amidst huge enthusiasm for the idea of creating a universal digital library. Gradually, problems emerged about copyright, national cultures, and surveillance. Then there is a handful of heroes, authors and academics in America, Germany, France, China and Japan, who dared to take on the giant Google, the world's most successful corporation ever! It is like David versus Goliath. In a kind of ending, an American judge ruled that Google's scanning project was illegal in March 2011, although the creation of a universal digital library continues, largely in the hands of the libraries themselves."

The National Library of China

There is, of course, a much more personal motivation for Lewis. As he is quick to admit:
"For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to make a film about libraries. They are my favourite places to be. Serene, beautiful repositories of the best thoughts that men and women have ever had. Free to use. Far from the din of modern capitalism, libraries are the epitome of the public institution. There is simply nothing bad about a library. It is my paradise.

I have been drawn to this subject by the combination of the ancient (the library) and the new (the Internet). There is a rare combination in this film of yesterday and tomorrow. A library is a repository of the past. The Internet is the technology of the future. Two worlds collide in this story which evokes the dramatic dawn of a new technological era for mankind, but one which might have its price."
The Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City

As one watches Google and the World Brain, numerous questions come to mind about the future of copyright law and whether the entire concept of how we share knowledge is undergoing a tectonic upheaval (the United States Library of Congress runs the National Digital Library Program).  Surprisingly, the Google Books Library Project has also led to a fierce debate about whether a multinational corporation has the right to define any nation's culture.

As I watched this film with my sister and brother-in-law (who are both retired librarians), I was equally intrigued by their comments as well as the professional insights from talking heads in the film. A chorus of laughter erupted during the section of Google and the World Brain which pointed out some of the imperfections in Google's cataloging techniques (Walt Whitman's famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. was incorrectly identified as a book about gardening).

Viewers may also wonder if an American filmmaker would have asked the same questions posed by Lewis and his collaborators. When betting on who will win the emerging battle between context and algorithms, one need only think of the famous statement by British author Neil Gaiman: "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” Here's the trailer:

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