Bad News, Good News: Riding the RSS Roller Coaster

Browsing RSS feeds is always an adventure, yanking me around from dystopia to utopia as I go from one link to another. Here are some of the stories from the dark side that have recently surfaced among my reading material.

December 21, 2010

Browsing RSS feeds is always an adventure, yanking me around from dystopia to utopia as I go from one link to another. Here are some of the stories from the dark side that have recently surfaced among my reading material.

The Supreme Court's split decision that affirmed the Ninth Circuit's decision in the Costco v. Omega Watches case has some troubling implications for libraries and research. Basically, a watchmaker put a copyrighted image on its watch to prevent retailers from purchasing luxury watches at a cheaper price abroad and selling them in the United States. The argument the watchmaker made and the Ninth Circuit bought is that the first sale doctrine, the legal concept that makes it not a violation of copyright law to buy a book and share that copy with others, only applies to the US. This means books published in foreign countries - or even published by US publishers but printed abroad - aren't covered. In spite of an excellent argument made by Jonathan Brand in an amicus brief asking that the court to rescue libraries from the nightmare that they might be unable to loan huge portions of their collections, the Supremes declined to intervene. Kenneth Crews says, sensibly enough, "don't panic yet" but Kevin Smith sees a disturbing trend, connecting dots between a lawsuit against UCLA for streaming videos they bought, a law firm ordering libraries to stop loaning scientific articles to people in other countries based on dubious territorial rights, and the affirmation of the Costco decision.

Another blog post, this one from the always thought-provoking Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, reminds me of the unhappy news we got this week, that subscriptions to a clutch of chemistry journals that are indespensible (partly because the society that publishes them also accredits chemistry programs and thus has an offer we can't refuse) is increasing its subscription rate more than 15% over last year's prices (which were already about double what I paid the last time I bought a new car). The poetic economist has an uncanny knack for finding the good news that publishers communicate to their investors. Informa Group (which you may know under the alias Taylor & Francis) is telling investors that they can provide high returns, high renewal rates ('cause we have those libraries totally over a barrel) and something that sounds like a Ponzi scheme: "excellent free cash generation" - which apparently means libraries have to pay far in advance, and that gives the company lots of cash on hand that doesn't have to actually be spent any time soon. There's a subtext here: what suckers!!

And then there's library-inflicted pain. OCLC, our cooperative created to share catalog records, has filed a motion to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit filed by a company that had the audacity to provide cheaper cataloging services to libraries, among them Michigan State University. As Michigan State prepared to make the switch - a cost-saving measure made necessary by the kinds of over-a-barrel price increases libraries face from outfits like the one mentioned above - OCLC abruptly raised the cost of contributing their records to WorldCat, the database that we depend upon for interlibrary sharing. OCLC has claimed they have to protect their "business model" using a "we have to destroy sharing in order to save it" argument. The fact that the company suing OCLC is affiliated by ownership with a vendor of an integrated catalog system and that OCLC is rolling out an integrated catalog system of its own does nothing but muddy the waters. All I know is my OCLC costs are awfully high, and when they are so opposed to competition, I doubt those costs will be dropping any time soon.

But the same RSS feeds that bring such depressing news also bring some cheer, just as Robert Darnton's "Three Jeremiads" ends with a Utopian vision of a solution to the problems we face. The Berkman Center has just announced a grant-funded initiative to design a "Digital Public Library of America." It's hard to know what exactly that will be; answering that question is part of the project. But the steering committee is full of smart people. The Berkman Center is in a position to take a close look at the legal barriers that stand in the way of creating an astonishingly rich library for the public good. By pooling the resources of institutions who want to see their cultural treasures shared digitally, not rationed and monetized, we have a chance to do something impressive to counter the dystopian impulses that so constrict libraries' current attempts to fulfill their missions.


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