Thursday, June 03, 2010

Scribes, Copyright, Crime and Google

Now I know I do like to rabbit on sometimes about the continuities and discontinuities in written communication in the middle ages and today, but during the course of the last day or so I have truly found myself, like Alice, down the rabbit hole and behind the looking glass. It all started when I found a link to an interesting old French paleography book published in 1892.
In the days of medieval scribes, there was no such thing as copyright. No sooner had an author put away his quill than everybody was free to transcribe his words, paraphrase them and incorporate them into new contexts. It was only the industrial production of books which set up the conditions for protection of authors and publishers, and then not for some centuries. The purpose of copyright was not to inhibit the dissemination of words, but to encourage them by protecting the investment of those who had set up print runs of books. Authors got paid royalties, so they didn't have to rely on the patronage of kings and magnates in order to eat.
Many interesting books published long ago are no longer available, often because they are only interesting to a small number of people, but interesting nonetheless. Google has been collaborating with some very eminent libraries to make these available again through Google books, but there is a catch. Copyright laws are not the same the whole world over. Rather than try to untangle the mess, Google has simply made certain books unavailable in full text to countries outside America if they have been published between around 1870 to the 1920s, whatever their actual copyright status. This was the case with this old paleography book, written in France, which I was trying to access from Australia.
Trolling around the web to resolve this issue, I discover that one suggestion is to obtain a free proxy in America, so that Google thinks that is where you are. This is very easy. There are hundreds of them, and they make up new ones every day as the old ones are shut down. Furthermore, they advertise this service in terms of not allowing your web surfing to be tracked, and enabling you to access sites banned in your school, workplace or country of residence. The sites have a tendency to have "up yours" or "in your face" kinds of names. I have also discovered that this is the very easy fix to our very stupid country's very stupid proposed mandatory internet filtering. So here I am, consorting with pornographers, gunrunners, terrorists, clandestine Facebook users in the workplace and God knows who else, just in order to read a very old academic book which actually is thoroughly out of copyright, here and everywhere else. Furthermore, very respectable archivists and academics have shown me how to do it, because it is not illegal to read or download this book. It's just the kind of company you have to keep in order to do it.
Of course, there was a catch. The proxy would not allow me to download the book as a pdf file because it was too big. Another proxy with a large download allowance was not actually in the USA. So the second suggestion was to see whether it was on the Internet Archive as a text. It was, but ..... if you clicked on the link to download the pdf, you got sent to .... Google books. I am now part way through the process of printing a large book one page at a time from the Internet Archive, because it is one of those reference type books that are useful to have to hand. It's got huge bibliographies and a large dictionary of Latin abbreviations. Yawn! But it is still cheaper than flying over to Harvard to look at it in the library from which it was Googled.
Isn't it about time that the publishing industry got over its paranoia, and there was some means of releasing elderly books of specialised interest without hysteria about copyright? If the book is out of print, it should be available. The big publishers are not going to have their sales of the next J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown knocked off by a few harmless oddballs downloading dictionaries of medieval Latin abbreviations. I'm sure that long deceased authors of specialist academic material would be fascinated if they could know that somebody still did want to read what they had written, just as I'm sure that even longer deceased medieval scribes would be fascinated and bemused by people rescuing scraps of their work from the bindings of later books and poring over them.
Meanwhile, if you don't hear from me again, you will know what has happened. "Knock, knock!! "Ello Sunshine, you're nicked! You've been using HideMyAss in order to download a little cursiva bastarda. Just come along with me, Madam."

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