It’s a perfect storm. On Wednesday, major websites made a highly visible stand against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), laws that purport to prevent piracy but could break the Internet as we know it if passed (not to mention stifle free speech, institutionalize prior restraint, and reverse the idea of innocent until proven guilty).
We’re still feeling a little punchy from the introduction of the Research Works Act, though publishers are distancing themselves from the statement of support that the Association of American Publishers issued. MIT led the pack, followed by others. On Wednesday, Nature Group issued a statement rejecting it (and then doubled its bet on the future by publicly explaining why it does not support SOPA/PIPA).
Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down its affirmation [PDF] that Congress has the right to give public domain materials to private interests. This goes a step further than the previous Eldred v. Ashcroft decision of 2003 by covering works created abroad that had exhausted the extent of protection in the U.S. but not in some foreign countries with which we had signed agreements. The majority basically said, “This ‘promote the progress of science and the useful arts’ language? It’s just a little decorative bobble, not an intrinsic part of why we give people a monopoly. Besides, who are we to challenge Congress?”
On the same day, we learned that Penguin has decided that not only can libraries not loan new ebook titles, they can’t have audiobooks from here on out, either. Any audiobook released after mid-November of last year is going to be quarantined from nasty, smelly libraries and those freeloaders who use them. Of course, Penguin didn’t tell libraries this. Librarians might talk back. No, we were informed via the usual ventriloquist act, by OverDrive.
And now, Apple just made a big announcement that they’re going to totally disrupt the textbook industry. (I was invited to participate in live-blogging the event for Inside Higher Ed.) No doubt Apple has visions of every student in the country carrying around iPads while people compete to give them content to sell.
Holding the high ground
Librarians fret about the future of libraries and wish we could be as slick and frictionless as innovative high-tech companies that deliver the goods so conveniently. But we, like the Internet, have the right underlying design, and the future is on our side.
As writer Clay Shirky points out, people are not couch-potato consumers. They want to create. They want to remix, modify, comment on, and share cultural materials. They want to take information and build things out of it. They always have been creative, and they are not going to put up with a regime that tells them their only role is as a consumer.
Amazon and Apple have been smart to tap into people’s desire to create by providing a platform that is open to more than the traditional media moguls. Even Penguin sees a future in providing a self-publishing platform. But these platforms come with serious strings attached and whenever these platforms make a misstep that reveals their monopolistic tendencies, they have a PR disaster on their hands, at least for a news cycle or two.
The dispersed, decentralized Internet is designed a little like the world’s libraries. As Tim Berners-Lee, the famed computer scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web, said to Congress a few years ago, the Net is open, linked, and independent of any central authority. What does the future of the Internet look like? This is what he predicted:
We ensure that that both technological protocols and social conventions respect basic values. That Web remains a universal platform: independent of any specific hardware device, software platform, language, culture, or disability. That the Web does not become controlled by a single company—or a single country. By adherence to these principles we can ensure that Web technology, like the Internet, continues to serve as a foundation for bigger things to come.
Like libraries, the Internet holds the promise that people, wherever they are, will be able to find things out, share things, create new things, debate ideas, and play a role in building the future. It’s what we human beings do. These squalls and tempests are temporary. We’ll figure this out—collectively, as we should.