Why The Internet is Failing It’s Public Domain Promise

December 29, 2008

by — Posted in Personal Writing

spiggot1

The Internet with it’s promise of a revolution has succeeded in it’s goal of changing the landscape of information and how it is disseminated to the public at large.   We deal with issues that new media and remixing is causing in the areas of old copyright.   I’m one of those that bemoan the constant increasing of time before works enters into the public domain.   I would like to see more information enter into the public domain quicker and I think the creative commons idea is the future of copyright law, but this isn’t about that.   It’s about the loss of public domain works.

It is true that efforts are underway to save and collect media that exists in the public domain.   There are even people creating new work specifically for the public domain.   We have libraries of public domain works and sites that collect information form past websites.   Videos are being collected and maintained where the copyright slipped by and were not renewed in time.  These things are great.   However there are too many people that could care less about the public domain or the ideas that spings out of it.

Most of the time public domain media is considered old and out-dated.   People want things that are new and exciting.  They want constant progress with no respect for the ideas of come from,  and don’t what forge from which the ideas have be tempered.  This leads to a loss of ideas, stories, pictures and music.

I once had an argument with someone in my support for the public domain.   I pointed out all the music and stories that have been lost to the ravages of time and may never be recovered.   Their response was if it was popular it never would have been lost.   This statement is almost as asinine as stating that I have nothing to hide, so it’s a good idea to perform surveillance on everyone.   While the latter statement points to no respect to your own privacy, let alone others.  The former statement has no respect for what has been created.

While we can look at three hugely popular sites for public domain media, Project Gutenberg, Archive.org, and Wikipedia; these are all very niche sites that serve a particular purpose.   They each have a primary focus in what they want to maintain.  Since these are the big players in their directed niche they are considered one of the authoritative sources for the type of public domain media and information that is able to be retrieved from their site.   What about some of the niches that aren’t covered?

Project Gutenberg has a long standing history of salvaging books that have entered into the public domain.   They do a great service that literally takes hundreds of volunteers to take books form a print medium and convert it to digital text available to all.  They are known for their e-books, while they do have some other things that they try to maintain, this is what they are known for.   If you are looking for a book that is in the public domain chances are you will be directed to them first.

Archive.org on the other hand, while authoritative in some respects is the jack of all trades in the public domain sector.   You would use them for website history research using their way-back machine site, or you may check with them for public domain video or audio.   It is a haphazard gathering of people that seem to utilize the best of breed mentality, the problem with being the jack of all trades, is sometimes it’s a pain in the butt to use.   Archive.org’s usability is one of the worst of the mainstream big sites that I’ve used.  It’s hard to find exactly what you are looking for.

Then you have Wikipedia, which essentially the public domain research encyclopedia.   Yes, there are issues with it.  Sometimes you can’t trust.   Sometimes it can be edited.  With all these problems, it’s authoritative.  You can’t do a Google search on a subject most of the time without seeing a Wikipedia link on the front page.   People link to Wikipedia since it’s trusted and becomes the cumulative knowledge of humanity over time or does it – the question will be discussed in an upcoming blog article.

However there is plenty of other types of information and media that is not collected and adequately cataloged so it’s easy to use for a layman.   There are for-profit companies cataloging and maintaining repositories of public domain information, but these companies charge a fee for information that truly and legally wants to be free.   It’s just that no one cares enough to invest the time or money to create archives.   I’m not saying companies can’t make money from these ventures, but I think our higher institutions and governments should take first run at them until they are large enough to be spun out into it’s own non-profit organization.

What type of information am I talking about?

Legal Transcripts

Architectural Plans

Sheet Music

Video

Audio

Photographs

General Art

Etc, etc, – if it has been created it should be saved.

I will state of the big three mentioned above, some of those dabble in all of these things, but not to any appreciable level that exists outside of their primary focus.   Yes there are niche sites, this whole thing started out of looking for public domain sheet music.    No site is authoritative, they all have their own issues, and ironically enough they don’t normally have the same data the other site has.    There is no reason for this, scans are not proprietary or unique, nor do they count as a derivative work.

The other issue with this is global acceptance and resources.  Most of the collections of public domain works exists only within themselves.   There is a lot of cross work done by universities scanning the exact same item to be in their collection that another university has already scanned.     This is wasted man power since their is no authoritative repository to put this information into, or cross reference against.   So this leads to the popular stuff normally being at the front of the list and most likely to be duplicated again and again and again, while the more obscure things are left unread and unfound.

Archive.org, Wikipedia, and Gutenberg all of something else that these other niche sites do not have, global mirrors.  Being an American I could easily say the library of congress will eventually have everything public domain online.   The first part is if I actually made that statement it would be naive on my part.   The second thing is that it means other countries are counting on the United States to save the public domain data.   I’m sure we won’t put the same care to local translation and books, compared to American editions when it comes to preservation or public dissemination of the work.

I’m angry and annoyed.  I’ll be revisiting this topic, but hopefully this primer of where I am coming from is something for you to think about and comment on.

6 thoughts on “Why The Internet is Failing It’s Public Domain Promise

  1. Wikipedia, or actually Wikimedia projects now cover several niches of the free content area, most notably Wikimedia Comons, which contains multi-terabyte amount of free media material, mostly photos.

    Other stuff is hard to find (eg. free photos if you are not the author, because they are usually lost, not digitised or owned by an institute with definitive methods preventing good quality copies) or require ridiculous amount of storage space (in case of good quality non-copyright-restricted movies), and usually all these are hard to access.

    I do not think it's the internet to blame, people do more than they're allowed to by moneymen (I mean, erm, lawmakers), they keep publish stuff all around. But useful stuff often copyrighted, like recent musical sheets, color photographs, movies. Internet's out of options unless we consider breaking the law.

  2. There is still plenty in the public domain that is either fractured across multiple repositories (like sheet music) or isn't making a real showing online at all (architecture plans come to mind). There is plenty of things that we could draw from that isn't breaking the law, but the attitude that “the usefule stuff is copyrighted” is the wrong way of thinking. I'm all for copyright reform, but until we get our existing public domain items in order I'm not sure we'll see a strong urge for reform in other venues.

  3. Creating a repository seems easy, but it isn't: sites only get popular when they're very easy to use, visually pleasing and do not get closed by authorities. I do not know about sheet music repos, but sounds pretty hard to do it nicely.

    I really wonder what kinds of architectural plans do you have on your mind, and where should be these found? All I know is that they're protected author's death+50 years, so basically we speak of papersto be scanned, but I still fail to see where these should be found (I'm not related to any architect so far, unless playing with ArchiCAD counts). Scanning is an exhausting task and doesn't really give satisfaction because the target audience is pretty narrow.

    I did not want to sound like “good stuff is copyrighted” would be the state of th world, but I just part of the team organising the “Wikipedia Loves Art” movement's local brainchild, which basically try to make good photographs of not copyrighted art, and I tell you it's not really possible. These are not copyrighted, but owned, and the owner have full rights over the object, including rejecting premission to make photos. Or ask money for it. Quite nice sums indeed.

    So basically new stuff is copyrighted, old stuff is locked down. Often, and not always; and some presuasion could lead to opening up objects otherwise free, like art, old books, etc. Needs people with strong drive, and lots of time. :-(

    Back to the original question: search technology actually makes the problem less serious, as scattered sheets can be looked up and found. It even helps archival by using different geolocations and multiple copies. :-)

  4. The big three for public domain data (wikipedia/gutenberg/web archive) all of the ability to easily repurpose a section for public domain sheet music (gutenberg has one but it's awful with no way to separate the books from the music). So with minor additions with have a segmentation (like wikipedia org does with it's spin off's) – it wouldn't be difficult at all to have the start of a repo up in a few days. Of course then you need to attract the users.

    Most all three of these have a user base which would attack and conquer the problem of filling in information – the problem is getting the existing community involved. I've bene on gutenberg mailing lists for going on 4 years – never once have they really talked about music to any extent – it's only through search engines that I found out they had any. Promotion needs to be part of whoever archive's it mission.

    I guess architectural plans are a little off-topic but still valid. Thinking to it I think building plans are patented and trademarked. This is why cities keep records of as many architectural plans as they can in city office. So essentially these plans are public record and are within the public domain. There is no reason they shouldn't be scanned in as part of new plans being entered in going forward. You would still need a repository, but the plans should be made available by city government – and don't get me started about cities not having the full local laws and codes online by now…..

    The problem with the art scenario isn't a copywritten one – in theory the image is in the public domain once the first sale has occurred or the image has ever been published. The problem is we move into property rights. I have a couple images that may or may not be in the public domain – if they were it doesn't matter since I have access to them and you don't. I do not have to give you access to my property to take pictures or make scans of. This is a different scenario all together then dealing with copyrights.

    Old stuff is not locked down – you just have to track it down. I shouldn't have to go to eighty websites to get all the scores to Beethoven's works – but as the web stands right now I would have to (I'm generalizing one site may have it all but have very little Bach) – Search technology for some of this stuff is week – pictures are only now getting ok at being searched – but that is all based on title and meta data – for things like architectural plans or sheet music – the workings for meta data for search isn't the strongest just yet.

    FYI – I personally don't care about architectural plans – I just use them as an example of a media that is locked away solely because no one has made a repository for them yet.

  5. Creating a repository seems easy, but it isn't: sites only get popular when they're very easy to use, visually pleasing and do not get closed by authorities. I do not know about sheet music repos, but sounds pretty hard to do it nicely.

    I really wonder what kinds of architectural plans do you have on your mind, and where should be these found? All I know is that they're protected author's death+50 years, so basically we speak of papersto be scanned, but I still fail to see where these should be found (I'm not related to any architect so far, unless playing with ArchiCAD counts). Scanning is an exhausting task and doesn't really give satisfaction because the target audience is pretty narrow.

    I did not want to sound like “good stuff is copyrighted” would be the state of th world, but I just part of the team organising the “Wikipedia Loves Art” movement's local brainchild, which basically try to make good photographs of not copyrighted art, and I tell you it's not really possible. These are not copyrighted, but owned, and the owner have full rights over the object, including rejecting premission to make photos. Or ask money for it. Quite nice sums indeed.

    So basically new stuff is copyrighted, old stuff is locked down. Often, and not always; and some presuasion could lead to opening up objects otherwise free, like art, old books, etc. Needs people with strong drive, and lots of time. :-(

    Back to the original question: search technology actually makes the problem less serious, as scattered sheets can be looked up and found. It even helps archival by using different geolocations and multiple copies. :-)

  6. The big three for public domain data (wikipedia/gutenberg/web archive) all of the ability to easily repurpose a section for public domain sheet music (gutenberg has one but it's awful with no way to separate the books from the music). So with minor additions with have a segmentation (like wikipedia org does with it's spin off's) – it wouldn't be difficult at all to have the start of a repo up in a few days. Of course then you need to attract the users.

    Most all three of these have a user base which would attack and conquer the problem of filling in information – the problem is getting the existing community involved. I've bene on gutenberg mailing lists for going on 4 years – never once have they really talked about music to any extent – it's only through search engines that I found out they had any. Promotion needs to be part of whoever archive's it mission.

    I guess architectural plans are a little off-topic but still valid. Thinking to it I think building plans are patented and trademarked. This is why cities keep records of as many architectural plans as they can in city office. So essentially these plans are public record and are within the public domain. There is no reason they shouldn't be scanned in as part of new plans being entered in going forward. You would still need a repository, but the plans should be made available by city government – and don't get me started about cities not having the full local laws and codes online by now…..

    The problem with the art scenario isn't a copywritten one – in theory the image is in the public domain once the first sale has occurred or the image has ever been published. The problem is we move into property rights. I have a couple images that may or may not be in the public domain – if they were it doesn't matter since I have access to them and you don't. I do not have to give you access to my property to take pictures or make scans of. This is a different scenario all together then dealing with copyrights.

    Old stuff is not locked down – you just have to track it down. I shouldn't have to go to eighty websites to get all the scores to Beethoven's works – but as the web stands right now I would have to (I'm generalizing one site may have it all but have very little Bach) – Search technology for some of this stuff is week – pictures are only now getting ok at being searched – but that is all based on title and meta data – for things like architectural plans or sheet music – the workings for meta data for search isn't the strongest just yet.

    FYI – I personally don't care about architectural plans – I just use them as an example of a media that is locked away solely because no one has made a repository for them yet.

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