Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Lanier Effect" + Authors Sue HathiTrust Over Digitization

J's Theater is not turning into the Jaron Lanier blog, but I came across the text and video link below (I've posted a screen grab but I cannot embed it) of a conversation--a monologue, really--he engages in with Douglas Rushkoff at Edge, the online tech site.  Entitled "The Local-Global Flip, or the 'Lanier Effect'," Lanier touches upon and goes far beyond some of the issues I previously mentioned in my review of his last book, as well as in my Labor Day post, while also offering one of the more idiosyncratic and intriguing readings of the global economic crisis. I'm not sure I fully grasp, let alone buy, his account of it, but some of his comments, like his reading of the dangerous effects of global networking on magnifying and engulfing the banks involved in it offer a different insight than I've usually read, though as the 1930s Global Economic Collapse and prior ones demonstrated, global financial networking and interdependence aren't new.

His thoughts about what will happen to people who cannot fit into the economic scenario he suggests will arise seems especially bleak, and has a strange, biological-eugenic edge. There's also a bit about automated cars, and another about electronic bread and circuses to anesthetize the masses who will be cut off from the possibility to earn a living.  Ultimately he returns to Ted Nelson's original plan to monetize Net transactions to preserve a middle class, or at the very least, generate liveable earnings for everyone who won't control the digital levers of power, be directly serving them, or be fortunately to live in a society in which other options--like natural commodities--underwrite more widely distributed wealth.  But do listen for yourself!

A snippet:
Ted's idea was that there would be a universal market place where people could buy and sell bits from each other, where information would be paid for, and then you'd have a future where people could make a living and earn money from what they did with their hearts and heads in an information system, the Internet, thereby solving this problem of how to have a middle class, and how to have liberty. To expect liberty from democracy without a middle class is hopeless because without a middle class you can't have democracy. The whole thing falls a part.
I remember when I first met Ted as a teenager, we talked about how you need to have some system like this where people are making a living with their hearts and heads, and trading online, and this was before the word "online" even existed in the way we know it today. It's the only way to have a future of liberty.
Silicon Valley totally screwed up on this. We were doing a great job through the turn of the century. In the '80s and '90s, one of the things I liked about being in the Silicon Valley community was that we were growing the middle class. The personal computer revolution could have easily been mostly about enterprises. It could have been about just fighting IBM and getting computers on desks in big corporations or something, instead of this notion of the consumer, ordinary person having access to a computer, of a little mom and pop shop having a computer, and owning their own information. When you own information, you have power. Information is power. The personal computer gave people their own information, and it enabled a lot of lives.

Related to what Lanier says here and to my Labor Day post is a link Reggie H. sent today: Jennifer Howard's Chronicle of Higher Education article, "In Authors' Suit Against Libraries, an Attempt to Wrest Back Some Control Over Digitized Works." Boiling it down, a group of eight individual authors, including the prominent Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, have joined with the Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, and the Quebec writers' union to file a copyright-infringement lawsuit against the HathiTrust digital repository and a consortium of over 50 university libraries with which it is working. These libraries include Cornell University, Indiana University, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Michigan. The suit, which the guild and its co-litigants filed in US District Court, aims to stop the HathiTrust and library consortium from digitizing and releasing what are called "orphan" books, or works under copyright whose authors cannot be identified or located, until the US Congress passes guidelines to clarify the use of digital libraries and orphan works.

As things stand, HathiTrust can digitize the works and distribute them via participating libraries; anyone affiliated with those institutions will have access to them, at whatever cost they deem appropriate.  Indeed, the lawsuit states that the defendants, as well as Google, which produced most of the digital scans, have participated in "the systematic, concerted, widespread, and unauthorized reproduction and distribution" of about 7 million copyrighted works, of which the brief mentions only a few, without permission to do so.  It asks the court to impound and withdraw from circulation "all unauthorized copies" of copyright-protected works the defendants possess until Congress issues a law, and to stop them from working with Google to scan in more works. The suit asks that the University of Michigan's Orphan Works Project also be halted.

A major concern of the plaintiffs is an issue I discussed in the Labor Day post, the security of the digital copies. They fear that these versions of the books could distributed freely and without controls via the Internet. Should copyrighted works enter the filesharing mainstream, the authors could lose all control over their work, and apparently the state institutions could not be sued because they enjoy "sovereign-immunity" protection. I assume private institutions like my employer do not. (Cornell is both public and private, so I wonder where it stands legally in this regard.) The Authors Guild also believes that authors should have a say in what happens to the books in the HathiTrust's repository. For their part, HathiTrust and the libraries, which all participate both in the repository and the Orphan Works project, say they have done nothing wrong, and see themselves as engaging in the vital work of preservation and dissemination of knowledge, which certainly are the purview of libraries and universities, and a central aspect of the case will determine how far libraries can go in making materials available across non-print/codex platforms. HathiTrust and the libraries say they know of no security breaches thus far, and feel blindsided by the lawsuit, given that they have recently been in discussions with the Authors Guild over the digitization project. They nevertheless are planning to release the first run of 26 titles in the Orphan Works series on October 13, 2011. That is, if the court doesn't enjoin them before then.

The list of HathiTrust books is here.

A final note, Geoffrey James states in the article's comment section: "It took the Author's Guild exactly 2 minutes to find a living author, with an agent, who is currently making e-distribution deals, whose work is supposedly 'orphaned' and will be distributed for free by the thieves at HathiTrust." X. The author? J. R. Salamanca. The book? The Lost Country, which was made into a 1961 film, Wild in the Country, adapted into a screenplay by Clifford Odets and starring Elvis Presley! Salamanca, whose novel Lilith also became a major film (starring the young Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, and Peter Fonda, in 1964), even has his own page.

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