Tuesday, June 18, 2013

when free culture charges for access – hypocrisy much?

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk in the cultural press about a purported “secret deal” between Library and Archives Canada and a digitization consortium (not part of our taxpayer supported library system) named Canadiana.ca. The deal involves digitization of, and metadata creation for, a great deal of the Library and Archives physical collection. You can see a Writers' Union of Canada press release about this deal right here.

Digitization of the LAC collection is something all of us in the business of creating Canadian cultural works have been hearing about and happily anticipating for well over a decade, but the work has been ponderously slow and fraught with bureaucratic delay. Frankly, any deal to get that work done and the information available online in a broad searchable database is worth spending public money on, in my opinion, as long as the focus is access AND as long as Canada’s reasonable copyright restrictions are respected.

And there’s the rub for this unclarified deal between LAC and Canadiana.ca. From the little clear and forthright information we’ve heard about these digitization plans, it appears some access to the digitized collection will be free, all access to the collection will eventually be open access, but premium access will be by subscription only for at least a decade. The confusion and controversy around this arrangement is so thick right now, Library and Archives Canada has apparently canned the deal, at least until the story cools a little bit.

In the meantime, let me register my own head-shaking disgust with certain aspects of this story. I’ve had several good long looks at the Canadian.ca site recently and in the past. Their company slogan is: 

Digitization – Preservation – Access.

What do they digitize? Primarily publicly-owned pieces of Canadian documentary history. From the What we do section of their site:
Canadiana.org works to preserve Canada's print history and make it accessible online. Working closely with major memory institutions, we identify, catalogue, digitize and store documentary heritage—books, newspapers, periodicals, images and nationally-significant archival materials—in specialized research databases.
The organization acts as a coordinator, facilitator and advocate for digitization initiatives, while providing access services and preservation infrastructures. Our flagship service, Early Canadiana Online, delivers 4 million pages of published heritage to Canada’s major research institutions, schools, and public libraries.
Which all sounds fantastic, until you get to this part:
Imagine, a huge collection of early Canadian documentary history for only $100 per person, a per-student rate for educational access, or a per-citizen rate for library access. Great.

Except everything being sold in these subscriptions has come from Canada’s public collections. Canadiana gets all of its content from our, as they euphemistically say, “major memory institutions,” and then, apparently, they sell it back to us.

Now, I have no doubt, Canadiana’s preservation, cataloguing and hosting services to Canada are worth paying for, but their access claims scream of hypocrisy, for a couple of very important reasons.

1. They do not provide a copyright licence for use of the work they host. According to the copyright notice on their site: 
All users of this website are responsible to ascertain for themselves whether any particular work or other subject matter is protected by copyright and to seek any necessary permission from the copyright owner(s) if they intend to use any such material in a manner not covered by the various exceptions such as users' fair dealing rights in the Canadian Copyright Act.
What does this mean exactly? If Canadiana.ca cannot extend permission for copying of the copyright-protected material on their website, how did they get permission to use that material in the first place? Is this another instance of public institutions turning over copyright-protected works belonging to other people to an aggregator without asking permission from the rightsholder?

2. While distancing themselves from the copyright of others, they strenuously uphold their own copyright.
The reproduction or distribution of any substantial part of the ECO collection or any of the compilations comprising it cannot be done in any manner without permission in writing from Canadiana.org.
This is really only to be expected, since demanding respect for one’s copyright is the legal foundation for charging for content, which Canadiana.ca does through their aforementioned subscriptions. Remember though, that the collections for which they are charging may contain works for which they have not received permission. That little detail might just put their whole business model in a legal no man’s land. Where the open access hypocrisy in this story reaches the stratosphere is at this link:

Good news Canadiana & LAC project spun into bad news?

Here, an employee of Canadiana.ca tries to explain why no-one should be worried about its business practices, because
It's a great place to work.”
He goes on the stress the value of the work done by Canadiana and the value of the content itself:
“This stuff doesn't come cheap, but given we are a charity the goal isn't to make some profit but to make the information as accessible to as many Canadians as we possibly can.
Finally he points out what he sees as the real danger to access.
“If reporters want to talk about locking up our heritage with secret deals they should look into things like ACTA, as well as asking their own employers and unions (PWAC/TWUC, etc) their views on things such as copyright term extension which is where the real threats are coming from.
Ah, yes, the real danger to access are the very creators who actually make the content Canadiana wants to digitize and sell for premium access. Free culture takes us through the looking glass once again. No surprise this Canadiana.ca employee is one of the loudest free culture voices attacking Canada’s collective licensing agency, Access Copyright. AC is itself a not-for-profit dedicated to providing access to content – you know, work that “doesn’t come cheap” - but why let facts get in the way of a hypocritical rant. Of course, Access Copyright represents works not publicly owned, not provided without permission of the copyright holder and not behind any subscription paywall. AC licenses access to privately-owned work it legally represents. So here’s the latest from free culture:
Selling your own work to the public, bad; selling publicly-owned work back to the public, good.
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1 comment:

Sandy Crawley said...

In a word, yes. Much hypocrisy.