While the Books Crumble

Anyone who wonders why copyright law can't keep up with rapid changes in technology would do well to ponder something called

Anyone who wonders why copyright law can’t keep up with rapid changes in technology would do well to ponder something called “The Section 108 Study Group Report,” released today. The title of the 212-page tome refers to the part of the Copyright Act that gives libraries permission to make preservation copies of endangered works in their collections.

The problem is huge. Million of books and manuscripts, especially on acid-rich wood pulp paper, are crumbling to dust. Old sound recordings, especially on magnetic media, become unplayable. Endless Congressional extensions to copyright protection have kept most of these works from entering the public domain. And while Section 108 creates copyright exemptions for libraries to preserve these works, they are given very little latitude.

After three years of work, the Section 108 Study Group came up with some very modest recommendations. The right to copy works for preservation should be extended to museums as well as libraries. Libraries would also be given permission to use contractors to do the work of duplication; current law requires them to do the work themselves. And a number of technical recommendations would make the duplication process easier. The minimalism of these recommendations was probably a foregone conclusion given the makeup of the study group, which consists of librarians and archivists, academics, and representatives of publishers and other rights holders, and the fact that the panel rules allowed it to make recommendations only when it has achieved consensus.

Many more books will be gone before anything comes of this. The report is only a recommendation to the Librarian of Congress. The Library of Congress can convert them into legislative proposals, which Congress may or may not ever get around to acting on. We have a copyright system designed in the 19th century with a bit of flavoring from the 20th, governing a reality where the existence of digital media is revolutionizing the very concept of content and protection. Unfortunately, the prospect of the law catching up with this reality anytime in the foreseeable future is very poor.

UPDATE: Typos pointed out by Ron Wagner corrected.l

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