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Wednesday 18 January 2012

The opportunity of the SOPA blackout

I don't know how this will come across, but I have serious reservations about the suggestion I've seen in a few places that libraries can take advantage of Wikipedia being down to promote the library.

I mean, yes, we can do that, but if libraries are only useful when Wikipedia's down then libraries are pretty crappy. And yes, I know that's not what people are meaning when they're suggesting/doing this, but it's what it comes across like to me at least. I envisage hordes of students desperately trying to finish their assignments grudgingly admitting, "Okay, for that one 24-hour period in a lifetime when Wikipedia's down, the library's kinda useful. Apart from being slow and clunky and not giving me enough or up-to-date enough information. Thank $Deity Wikipedia's back up tomorrow!"

Because to be honest, when it comes to ready reference, everything sucks compared to Wikipedia. I'm a librarian, I know my library's resources, and I'm also a geek and know how to search the web at large, but if I want a quick introduction to almost anything I go to Wikipedia. If I want to figure out what model my cellphone is, if I want a description of a database that isn't a salespitch, if I want a listing of all the episodes of White Collar, if I want a summary of King Lear, if I want to decode a biochemical reference query I've just received by email so I can start answering it...

If I want to know something and I want to know it now, not in two minutes time, I go to Wikipedia. Because none of the library's references resources is anywhere near as convenient, easy to use, up-to-date, or thorough.

(If I need to know for certain I'll double-check elsewhere. But that doesn't happen nearly as regularly as needing to know it now.)

So to me, the blackout as an opportunity to promote the library as a replacement for Wikipedia is just an opportunity to show people one of our greatest weaknesses. The strengths of a library are so much more than that, but we can't promote them by setting up this comparison.

The real opportunity of the SOPA blackout is to educate people about intellectual property and freedom of information. You know -- that thing which the blackout was supposed to be about.

Beyond the simple ethics of not hijacking an important cause (and btw, I have even graver misgivings about using the blackout to promote the databases sold to us by the publishers supporting SOPA!), teaching people about this stuff is a much more important part of our mission than pointing them to the encyclopaedias. And fulfilling this mission will do far more to promote our real strengths.

Monday 9 January 2012

How US intellectual property laws affect the rest of us, and what we can do about it

How can it affect us?
Imagine a New Zealand website which sells (eg Fishpond) or gives away (eg NZETC - Eric Hellman discusses Project Gutenberg Australia) ebooks of material in the public domain. Now imagine that a law in the US allows for this site not only to be blocked from the US, but also to be removed from search engine results (search engines widely used throughout the world) and blocked from receiving any revenue from the US (including revenue for legitimate sales of in-copyright books).

Wait, what?
New Zealand's copyright law puts books in the public domain 50 years after the death of the author (which is bad enough - I'm a fan of our original copyright period of 28 years OR life, whichever was longest); US copyright law currently means any book published after 1923 won't get into the public domain until 2019, if ever (see also the Mickey Mouse Protection Act). The difference between the two means there's a whole bunch of books which are legal for anyone to freely distribute in New Zealand, but illegal to distribute without permission from the rights-holder in the US. Currently we just cope with the disparity. I mean, the authors have been dead for at least 50 years anyway. However...

What are the proposed US laws?
The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is written such that if any foreign site that is "US-directed" (defined as any site that doesn't actively prevent people in the US from accessing it) distributes anything against US law, then the US can hit it with a bunch of sanctions. Theoretically these sanctions are probably intended to just prevent the site trading with people in the US; in practice, they'd prevent people in most of the world being able to easily access or use the site.

I'm not sure of the relationship of SOPA to the proposed Protect IP Act (PIPA), but that seems to have similar intentions. "Don't Break the Internet" at the Stanford Law Review Online discusses the potential effects of these two bills.

If that's not bad enough, there's the proposed Research Works Act (RWA) which is designed to make open access mandates illegal - and thereby cut down on the amount of open access material available to researchers worldwide. (The rationale is that private publishers publish it, so it shouldn't be free to the public. But if the public is funding the research grants and paying the salaries of the researchers and the peer reviewers then why it shouldn't be locked behind a paywall benefitting only the private publisher, either.) Here's a thorough roundup of blogposts on RWA.

Who would want to do such a thing?
The Association of American Publishers' Professional and Scholarly Publishing put out a press release in support of the RWA; here's a list of AAP/PSP members. One of the sponsors of RWA has received campaign contributions from Elsevier. So has the other.

Elsevier is also on the List of SOPA supporters (pdf) along with quite a lot of other publishers (academic and fiction).

What can we do about it?
If we voted in the US we could contact our representatives and ask them to vote against these bills. But they probably don't care much what foreigners think.

If this were really a free market we libraries could say "Nah, we're not going to buy from [Elsevier] this year, we'll give our money to some other science-publishing company." But publishers have a monopoly on their titles, and academics would generally have words to say if we didn't provide access to the Journal of Important Research in My Field.

But publishers don't only rely on libraries' purchasing money. They also rely on researchers (including non-US researchers, and including library researchers) providing them free articles to publish and providing them free labour in the form of peer review. So what any researcher can do is withdraw that free labour. And while we librarians are encouraging other researchers to take a stand, we can put our money where our mouth is.For the record, I personally am not going to publish anything unless either a) I get to CC-license it or at least put a copy in my institution's open access repository; or b) I get paid for it (unlikely in the scholarly publishing world, but relevant for fiction). Tenure's not an issue for me so I demand either fame or fortune before I give my work away.

(I'll create it for fun. But to give it away I require something more.)