Friday, January 29, 2010

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts"

Free public libraries are rare things in India, even in Pune, "The Oxford of the East." There are nominally public libraries, and I’m told some of these have decent enough collections—people speak highly, for example, of the British Council Library on Fergusson College Road. All the universities and colleges here also have collections, of course. But I haven’t found out about a library I can stroll into and browse, not without a membership, paid for or secured in some other way that those of us who grew up in the United States (thanks again, Ben Franklin!) find counter intuitive and culturally anti-social. Or socially anti-cultural, something like that.

I mean, I always felt lucky, as a kid, to ride my bike down King Street to the Martinsburg Public Library and browse for quiet hours. Not that it had anything to do with luck, I realized long years later; it’s just stunningly simple, brilliant public policy to make good free libraries possible.

Here, I sometimes meet people who tell me they can get me a membership, or at least access, to a library to which they belong. They say this conspiratorially, as if they were offering to sneak me onto their country club golf course.

I wouldn't have to sneak in to The British Council Library, however. Its website lists the requirements for a basic membership at the BCL in Pune. By the looks of it, this is one of the most accessible collections in the city: Rs. 1500 (roughly $30) per year and proof of residence gets you three “senior” books at at time for a four-week checkout. I don’t know how deep the BCL’s collection is, here. I also don’t know what a “senior” book is. But I know that Rs. 1500 is one hell of a lot of money on average in Pune. And the considerable numbers of people living in slums have a hard time with the whole proof of residency thing, too. Actual literacy aside (I know: it’s a big thing to leave aside), my point is: it’s not easy to get your hands on books for free in this country.

However, books of all kinds abound in India, in a marketplace of varying shades.

Alongside licit booksellers, street stalls sell magazines and mounds of pirated copies of best sellers, things like Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. While Friedman cheekily displays a pirated copy of his book, most authors and publishers don't really find this sort of thing amusing. It's exactly the kind of abuse copyright laws are supposed to prevent. Few authors and publishers, on the other hand, have a problem with libraries lending their books for free; ask an author sometime: black market or free lending library?

More importantly--from my non-publisher perspective--the accessibility of pirated copies of popular books, even if these are very inexpensive, does not remotely mitigate the lack of public libraries. This should be obvious to anyone who can actually read, but I'll let Lawrence Lessig put it another way. This is from his excellent essay, “For The Love of Culture,” published this week in The New Republic. He's talking here about the distinction between virtual and material cultural access, but the last two lines, of course, apply to that idea of cultural matter made available for and subject to the market:
In real libraries, in real space, access is not metered at the level of the page (or the image on the page). Access is metered at the level of books (or magazines, or CDs, or DVDs). You get to browse through the whole of the library, for free. You get to check out the books you want to read, for free. The real-space library is a den protected from the metering of the market. It is of course created within a market; but like kids in a playroom, we let the life inside the library ignore the market outside.
Lessig has a much bigger point to make, of course. In the context of a discussion about the settlement Google reached with the Author’s Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers, he points out a number of the ways in which evolving copyright law threatens to render much of our recent cultural past–artifacts like documentary media–inaccessible in the future.
Books--physical books, and the copyrighted work that gets carried in them--are an extraordinarily robust cultural artifact. We have access to practically every book ever published anywhere. You do not need to be a Harvard professor to enter the rare book room at the law library. You do not need to touch rare books to read the work those books hold. Older works--before 1923, in the United States--are in the public domain, which means that anyone, including any publisher, can copy and reprint that work without any permission from anyone else. There is no Shakespeare estate that reviews requests for new editions of Hamlet. The same is true for every nineteenth-century author in America. These works are freely and widely available, because no law restricts access to these works.

And just about the same is effectively true for any book still under copyright. No doubt, publishers are not free to take the latest Grisham novel and print a knockoff. But through the extraordinary efforts of libraries (and they are Herculean, no doubt) and used bookstores, you can get access to basically anything, and for practically nothing. Your library can get it, and share it with you almost for free. Your used bookstore can find it and sell it to you for less than the cost of a night at the movies.

So notice, then, how different our access to books is from our access to documentary films. After a limited time, almost all published books (but not all: put aside picture books, poetry, and, for reasons that will become obvious, an increasing range of relatively modern work) can be republished and redistributed. No heir of a long-dead author will stop us from accessing her published work (or at least the heart of it--some would say that the cover, the foreword, the index might all have to go). But the vast majority of documentary films from the twentieth century will be forever buried in a lawyer’s thicket, inaccessible (legally) because of a set of permissions built into these films at their creation.
Lessig is one of few people warning us that we are on the verge of giving up a model of access--to science, philosophy, literature, history, music--that has made us immeasurably rich; what can we expect in return? Pirated copies. I mean: when libraries are outlawed, only outlaws will have libraries.

I'm joking, but only mostly. Philadelphia came perilously close to losing much of its public library system a few months ago, but the conventional collection and circulation of books in the US isn't likely to disappear. There are even emerging public media collections, like the Internet Archive, that have begun to make available what is legally cleared (and Helmut has pointed to good collections of otherwise unavailable music floating around the web . . . but I suspect some of that is, strictly speaking--and distributors of media are speaking more strictly--not kosher). But it looks increasingly likely that many other productions--especially in media like documentary and narrative film--may be lost to the culture that made them possible and that might wish to learn from its past. We would be left instead the pirated stuff, those works whose availability correspond to the broadest interests and desires, to the market.

The world would be a flatter place.


Einar Jón said...

The BCL "senior" books are basically all books that are not in the "junior" section - I found that out when trying to take out an Eoin Colfer book.
DVDs and music/multimedia CDs are also not part of the basic plan. Some kind of family membership (Rs 2800-3500 p.a.) is required for all those.

The annual fee is pretty steep - especially when you consider the cost of a library card in terms of average salary or book prices (e.g. 5 new paperback bestsellers).
Compared to the ~$8 p.a. that I pay in Iceland (which would get you half a paperback) it's downright outrageous.

MT said...

I'm totally on board with Lessig on this, but it may be a category mistake and bad precedent to treat books and film as the same kind of product. My biography is not my likeness to the same extent my photo portrait or my mugshot is. What happens when my synaptic patterns go online?

barba de chiva said...

Well, the point isn't that they're the same kind of product -- only that the sorts of licensing for documentary media meant to protect intellectual property (not at all a bad motive for Lessig or me or you, I'm sure) wind up making it much harder to keep that media available legally.

You're right to suggest there's no solution parallel to what has historically been used for books. But someone (smarter than me, clearly) needs to be thinking about what might work for us.

Did you read Lessig's piece -- or had you seen it in a presentation? There are several videos of him delivering this, mas or menos.

MT said...

I have the piece you cited bookmarked, but I've read and online-audited a lot of his stuff in this vein.

MT said...

i.e. "no, haven't read that one yet, but I'm primed"