Monday, June 25, 2007

A Panel of Bartenders Discussing Prohibition

It's true that a panel of bartenders discussing Prohibition would probably be more entertaining than a panel of library science experts expounding upon digital copyright restrictions, but yesterday I devoted two hours to watching an exercise of the latter anyway. Readers may recall that I was miffed about all the digital access restrictions on what should be free and open public discussion, but a helpful librarian sent me the link to the webcast of Copyright in the Digital Age: An Update, so I could see what the American Library Association was endorsing and disseminating to its members and other interested parties. (This link will expire after July 1st, so readers should visit the site now.)

At first I was concerned by the introductory rhetoric, which emphasized "teaching our students" about copyright rather than being advocates for their interests in the face of possible infringement and the passive reception of "updates" rather than activism, but the main program made clear that librarians continue to be at the forefront of progressive engagement with information policy issues.

I also wasn't sure that host Cheryl Hamada was entirely correct to open the show by asserting that "methods of information delivery drive and change the face of copyright law." Technological developments are only one factor among many and social, political, and educational changes also impact copyright policies.

Kenneth Crews of Indiana University argued that "who shows up" to lobby and testify before Congress often shapes the text of specific copyright exemptions. In gloating that "Ha! I'm the Only Blogger at Sivacracy Who Can Legally Circumvent DVD Encryption," Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out the comic fact that many who teach and write about, with, and through digital media are still prohibited from digital copying that would otherwise be protected by section 107, the so-called "fair use" exemption. As one questioner pointed out, anthropology professors -- who often depend on showing films from other countries with different digital region codes or ones that may no longer be in distribution -- may also need to copy films to show in class in connection with coursework. Crews said that the film and media professors were able to secure the exemption because they showed up and anthropology professors didn't. As my pal historian Bob Blackman used to say facetiously, you can't teach history without an electrical outlet, since you can't do it without a VCR.

Crews also cautioned against tinkering with laws without careful study and reflection, since he said that "bad changes" were certainly possible and that advocacy was sometimes needed for the status quo. He also reminded viewers of their ethos as an audience: "good citizens" who were interested in "doing the right thing" and acting in "good faith."

Miriam Nisbet spoke from her perspective in the Library of Congress Section 108 Study Group, which deals with issues arising in relation to U.S. legislation, regulation, and oversight as well as treaties and policy decisions on the international stage. Section 108 refers to the exemptions to copyright law available to libraries and archives. As she pointed out, legislation can come with baggage and that "baggage can be pretty burdensome." In particular, Nisbet explained how digital regulations created problems for the traditional services of research libraries such as course reserves and interlibrary loan.

Rounding out the panel was Tomas Lipinski, who I was prepared not to like because he talked about "rogue faculties" and "stepping on" the rights of copyright holders. He also mystified me with a PowerPoint slide that made the following cryptic statement that quoted Arthur R. Miller and Michael H. Davis: "If copyright law is the 'metaphysics' of law, fair use is its 'semiotics.'"

Later, Lipinski was back in my graces by taking a broad view of the exemption for "transformative" works, although he also used the value-laden term "good." This broad interpretation recognized "indexes, bibliographies, and abstracts" as transformative, and thus positioned librarians as creators of new knowledge. He even quoted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation!

Librarians are also working on expanding rules that currently restrict the total number of post purchase copies to three, including the original and counting both digital and paper. It is interesting to note how many DRM restrictions limit users to three devices, copies, or installations and the way that this conforms to the "rule of threes" that is so prevalent in Western folklore and mythology. As someone who has had two hard drives and two iPods wiped just in this past year, I think revisiting this convention is certainly in order for consumers as well.

After sitting still for a long webcast, it was nice to enjoy more copyright transgressing fun. I went to see Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow doing an amazing virtuoso performance on eight turntables with nothing but unwieldy 45s.

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