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The electronic library debate continues

Cousin Jon emailed me David Pogues' recent blog on copyright, with an observation on digital libraries.

The science and technology world has an interesting analog to the paper vs electronic print music debate. In our world, the problem crops up with professional papers. My own attitude is clear: if I have the choice between downloading a free copy of someone's paper I find on-line, or purchasing a copy from the professional society, I grab the free copy.

Partly this is because the original author doesn't get a penny from publication sales. In many cases the author is lucky if the association prints the paper for free, without requiring "page charges." Another reason is that, in most cases, the paper is actually made available on-line by one or more of its authors.

I think Pogue's friend, Jason Robert Brown, went around asking for people to pay for his music because he could - the copyright law and business tradition says he's entitled to his share. If Brown's copyright had lapsed (almost impossible for anyone with a pulse) he wouldn't have cared. Likewise, Brown wouldn't have cared if the publishers had bought out his rights, so that he wasn't entitled to a cut any more.

As a practical matter, many of us in the professional, technical, or academic worlds have professional society memberships that provide access to on-line copies of most papers and publications. I'm usually caught by surprise if I can't find some form of a paper on-line, either through the ACM, IEEE, or for free.

In the world of Internet-related technologies, there's an almost "open source" attitude about posting papers: it seems rude to fail to do so.

My favorite point

I think Michael Hawley made the best point in Pogue's article: the long term objective should be preservation of culture, and how do the various alternatives affect that end state? This might not be exactly what Hawley meant, but it's a sentiment I like.

I have an extensive library in both physical and electronic form, and both will be distributed among my descendants. If this becomes common, it will impact lots of publishers in future decades. But I see no reason not to share such things with my family. I really think this qualifies as fair use.

I hate to lose things

As an author, I like to get royalty checks. Moreover, I try to respect the intellectual property of enterprises that publish my stuff, but you can get caught by that sometimes.

About ten years ago I wrote a short piece on authentication for a trade magazine. I really liked the resulting article and I received nice comments from several people I respect. I had a link to the magazine's on-line copy of the article.

Since then, the magazine has been merged and reorganized a few times. The article no longer appears on-line, and I never managed to get a decent soft copy of it. Mostly I miss the diagrams that their professional graphic artist rendered from my awkward attempts.

So, I'm appalled that I failed to grab a soft copy of the article. Today I wouldn't hesitate to put the article on-line, even though the magazine still exists. Yes, this is a technical violation of copyright. But I don't see that they have the right to prevent distribution of the material simply because they don't want to bother.

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