Sailing to Byzantium

I couldn’t resist citing one of my favorite poems for this post about my coming trip to Istanbul, especially since I have been reading John Julius Norwich’s ” A Short History of Byzantium” in preparation.  But most of my time recently has been spent preparing for the two presentations I will be giving next week at the second annual IP conference sponsored by eIFL in Istanbul.  I have always wanted to visit Istanbul, so I am very excited about finally getting that opportunity; I am sure I will have much more to say about the city and the conference next week and thereafter.  But as a preliminary reflection, I want to say something about the organization that is sponsoring the conference and comment on each of the presentations I have been preparing.

eIFL –Electronic Information for Libraries — is an organization that deserves to be better known in the library community (although by saying that all I really do is confess that I had not heard of it before).  eIFL’s mission is to “enable access to knowledge through libraries in developing and ttansition countries.”  To that end they have established six core programs: they negotiate access to commercially produced databases and electronic journals, they assist in building national library consortia, they facilitate interaction and sharing among knowledge professionals and they advocate on three fronts — copyright law, open access and open source software.  Just reading their excellent website is an education in the role of libraries in the development of nations and cultures.  I am humbled by the invitation to speak to a group of librarians involved with eIFL (and interested in copyright issues) and look forward to the chance to learn as much as I can from them over the coming week.

The first of my presentations, about the development of copyright policies for libraries, poses an interesting challenge.  So much policy on this topic in US libraries is based on specific provisions in our copyright law, whether fair use, section 108 for interlibrary loan and preservation, or even something as basic as the doctrine of first sale, which allows free library lending in the first place.  I cannot claim to know what those structures are or how the function in the copyright laws of all the different nations that will be represented in Istanbul.  So the gist of this presentation will be to talk about the different copyright issues that arise and the different ways national law might address those issues.  I can only hope to outline the decisions that have to be made as one develops a policy within the structures created by a national copyright law.

I seldom have much good to say about US copyright law in this space, but my initial conversations about this presentation have made me somewhat grateful that US law addresses many of our library issues so specifically.  Even when I feel it gets the balance of rights and opportunities wrong, as I often do, at least we work within an articulated structure, which is not always the case elsewhere in the world.  One irony here is that the growth of digital communications is leveling that playing field a bit, since many of the legal structures developed in the US break down when one tries to apply them to instantaneous worldwide digital access, and we are left to do our best to strike a fair balance in the absence of clearly applicable law, just as many in the rest of the world often must do.

My second presentation will be about the implications of the Google Books Settlement agreement for libraries.  Preparing for this has been a real eye-opener about the international ramifications of that agreement.  Although the agreement says it authorizes nothing except in the US, almost in the next sentence it adds that Google must notify the Books Rights Registry if it begins to make covered works available outside the US.  So international availability is clearly contemplated.  Also, many, many authors around the world are putative members of the settlement class, since they will hold US copyright interests and/or their books will already be included in the Books Search database.  It is interesting to see how different national groups have responded to being made part of the settlement.  A statement from the Pan-Africa Writers Association encourages authors to register with the BRR and claim their interest, while an article in a leading Japanese newspaper denounces the arrogance of forcing authors to opt out in order to “preserve their rights.”

These divergent opinions are probably simply the result of everyone’s confusion and shock at how radically our law and our practice of access books will be changed by what is, after all, a private settlement between parties.  Google books will go from being an index of the worlds knowledge to a vast commercialization of out-of-print books, changing the landscape for bookstores and libraries, as well as the legal landscape, especially around orphan works and any of the copyright exceptions (like 108) that rely on a work being commercially unavailable.  Yet all of this will happen with little or no input from most of the affected parties; vast public changes will be accomplished through private negotiations.  This, I believe, was a major theme at the conference held last week about the settlement agreement at Columbia Law School, and I will close by linking to two of the major reports I have read about that conference, here and here.  I look forward to gaining a more international perspective on this ongoing discussion from the conference participants in Istanbul, and I promise to share some of what I learn when I return.

By the way, it is somewhat ironic that I should think of the W.B. Yeats poem from which my title is taken, since I will be traveling to Istanbul, ancient Byzantium, shortly after my fiftieth birthday, and the first line of Yeats’ poem, made famous by a recent movie, is “That is no country for old men.”  We shall see.

One thought on “Sailing to Byzantium”

  1. The first line of the poem refers not to Byzantium, the goal of the journey, but to a land of youth, from which the speaker is leaving or has left, to which he no longer belongs or can belong.

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