Remembering the rights of others

Peter Brantley -- December 14th, 2011

Two years ago, in September 2009, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) testified in front of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives, urging support for the proposed Google Book Search (GBS) settlement between Google, the Authors Guild, and the AAP. Nearly one year previously, in October 2008, the University of Michigan, one of the participating GBS libraries, had demonstrated to the NFB how they would make their digital collection accessible to the print disabled. In the GBS settlement, the NFB saw the means to daylight millions of books that otherwise would remain unavailable to the visually impaired, never having been made accessible by their publishers.

The NFB’s president said:

The Google settlement is, for the blind and many others, the next step in the democratization of knowledge. That process began with the introduction of the printing press and then, for the blind, with the invention of Braille. Now technology is available that transcends the traditional limitations of both print and Braille, promising to make millions of titles available to the blind in Braille or any other format of our choice. The narrow business interests of Google’s competitors must not be allowed to block Americans who cannot read print from all of the opportunities that greater access to written knowledge will make available to them.

Two years later, in September 2011, almost to the very day, the Authors Guild filed a suit against HathiTrust, a collective of libraries seeking broader access to digital materials, and several member libraries participating in the Google Book Search program. The Authors Guild claims that HathiTrust is violating the copyright of the defendants by scanning, duplicating, and distributing book scans, and asked the court to take down the database by “impounding” the digital copies. Among the efforts that HathiTrust was pursuing was a pledge to make the scans of library books available to the visually handicapped using accessible technologies.

And so the AG has launched an action against not merely the libraries which were participants in the settlement process with strong vested interests in its passage; it has also antagonized the NFB. Today, the NFB filed to intervene in the AG v HathiTrust case, seeking status as a defendant. The NFB believes that the AG’s request to have the entire library taken down would interfere with the visually impaired’s right of access to the books under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), contravene the intent of the “Chafee Amendment” of the Copyright Act supporting access to copyright materials by the print disabled, and impinge on Fair Use.

In their motion [pdf], the NFB writes with an almost palpable sense of frustration:

By seeking to impound all of the digital copies of the works in the HathiTrust Digital Library and to prevent all future digitization of copyrighted works by the Defendants, the Plaintiffs threaten (1) to deny the Proposed Intervenors their legal right to access texts in the Defendants’ collections and (2) to interfere with the Defendants’ rights to facilitate that access under Sections 107 and 121 of the Copyright Act. …

With the HathiTrust Digital Library … a comprehensive digital archive does now exist, providing the potential for access to the full range of material in the University Defendants’ libraries. If this suit results in the sequestration or elimination of the libraries’ digital archives, the Proposed Intervenors will be denied that access, while the material will still be available to sighted members of the University Defendants’ communities in its print form.

It seems to me that in the AG’s aggressive pursuit of the copyrights of their membership, they have forgotten that rights might have been created for others. Books are not just pieces of property to be bought and sold through contract; they embody ideas, educate, and open up worlds. Our society has long held that a shared right to information is fundamental, and we have passed laws and enacted regulations enabling those at risk for marginalization to have equal access to the same knowledge and opportunity as everyone else.

In a digital age, one of the things that libraries do is to uphold that social contract: the belief that protecting the rights of all, no matter the inconvenience, is part of what makes us whole. By averting its eyes to everything except intellectual property rights, perhaps the Guild has forgotten the rights that accrue to the people who benefit from the livelihood of its members. We, who read the books.

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