Wonks and Librarians

Somehow, my last post on orphan works has become the fourth hit on Google when you search for “Orphan Works Act”, as of 12:30 pm EST on April 16th. This is contrary to everything I know about search engine optimization, but that’s for another day.

The point is that, as a result of the post’s high Google ranking, I’ve had a number of comments from the previously-mentioned angry illustrators, upset about what they believe orphan works legislation will do to their livelihoods, and I feel compelled to respond.

There is a lot of misinformation about the potential Orphan Works Act being spread by the Illustrators’ Partnership, most of which is embodied in Mark Simon’s recent article, “Mind Your Business: You Will Lose All The Rights to Your Own Art” (the lies begin in the title). Illustrators all over are swallowing these falsehoods whole, and have taken it as their personal mission to make sure no Orphan Works Act ever passes. A few people out in the blogosphere have done a nice job of addressing the many specific inaccuracies floating around – Meredith Patterson and kynn both go into great and entertaining detail – and I won’t address them here.

Here, I’m concerned with the assertion, made by Mia in a comment on my last post, that orphan works legislation “is a ludicrous scheme dreamed up by greedy corporations”. It’s not. It’s just not. For the last few years, major champions of orphan works reform have included Lawrence Lessig, Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Eric Eldred, and The American Library Association. And don’t forget Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters. These are individuals and organizations dedicated to serving the public good, to preserving the founding principles of copyright law, and to promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts. They’re policy wonks and librarians.

Why do wonks and librarians care about orphan works? Because we see every day the terrible impact that ever-extending copyright terms are having on the ability of ordinary people to find, share, and build upon the creative works of the past. Because we are watching unique materials in our collections – fragile books, classic film reels, historic photographs – crumble, with no clear legal protections for those of us would like not just to preserve those materials, but resurrect them and introduce them to a new generation of users and researchers.

I can brush off a lot of the lies about potential orphan works legislation as just poor fact-checking, but when someone lumps me in with “greedy corporations” – the very corporations that got us into this copyright mess – I take it personally. The public benefit that would come from a reasonable orphan works act is real, and it is great. Librarians see it. Policy wonks see it. Many scholars and creators see it, too. Orphan works legislation is not about authorizing giant corporations to steal from starving artists. It’s about opening up a vast store of resources that have been made inaccessible through a series of bad policy decisions and that, in the age of the Internet, have new potential to reach and affect millions of people who never could have found them before. Orphan works reform was dreamed up by wonks and librarians, because we care about the public, we care about progress, and we want to do good.

I’ve been Schmapped!

I’m a huge fan of the Creative Commons, and I promote their licenses and their work whenever I can. One of my current CC-related interests is in companies that build profit-making business models around the use of CC-licensed work. Jamendo distributes music for free to fans under a CC-NC license, and then sells commercial uses of those songs for film and advertising. I learned about Vidoop at South by Southwest; they offer an OpenID-based login system that relies on the identification of sets of image categories, instead of passwords (or something like that). Where does Vidoop get all the images it needs? Flickr’s CC-BY and CC-SA collections, of course.

The latest CC-based business to cross my radar is the travel guide site Schmap. I found out about it when I got a message that one of my Flickr photos had been nominated for inclusion in Schmap’s guide to the Niagara Region. I was glad that they liked my picture, and extra glad to learn about another cool project involving CC-licensed work.

Schmap creates free, printable and downloadable travel guides. As far as I can tell, it’s ad-supported. Like Vidoop, Schmap gets all its photo illustrations from Flickr, and the editors seem to search only for CC-licensed work; if the CC license permits commercial use, they go ahead and use it, and if it doesn’t, they ask for permission. I have no proof, but my guess is that they’ve identified users of CC-licenses as more open to reuse and sharing, regardless of whether or not their chosen licenses permit commercial use.

The agreement that they asked me to sign is the model of a good, creator-friendly agreement.

Subject to the terms and conditions herein, You hereby grant Schmap a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, perpetual license to include the Photos in the current and/or subsequent releases of Schmap’s destination/local guides.

Nothing in these Terms is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use, first sale or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws.

Non-exclusive! Explicitly encouraging fair use! Awesome!  This is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to see from more scholarly and academic publishers. Hopefully, experiments like Schmap will demonstrate that it’s possible for some businesses to make money without controlling the copyrights in the content it distributes. A non-exclusive license will do.