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Makin' Copies and Caching In

Submitted by Tom Peters on October 19, 2005 - 10:34am

Tom Peters Head Shot

I don't know what possessed me to write a blog entry about copyright. Hasn't enough been written about copyright already—even if the future of copyright, fair use, the right of first sale, and intellectual property in general is arguably one of the essential issues currently confronting society and culture?

Here's how it happened. I was walking our dog Max in the pre-dawn darkness. Overhead, the slightly past-full moon was beginning its decline. The warm breeze reminded me that today probably will be the final day this year of summerlike weather in beautiful Blue Springs.

An MP3 player was in my pocket and earbuds were in my ears, but I wasn't listening to any music or audio book. Rather, as Max tugged me from my slumber, I was mulling over an article that appeared in yesterday's USA Today about the lawsuit between the Authors Guild and Google over Google Print. (I thank the ever vigilant Bernie Sloan, with an obligatory nod to Stanley Fish, for pointing out this article in the quintessential artifact of the popular press.)

In the article, Doug Armato from the University of Minnesota Press is quoted as stating, "They're making unauthorized copies, period. It's not fair use." After I read Doug's first sentence, I thought, "He's right." Google is making copies, and they are not seeking prior authorization to do so. Instead, if a copyright holder asks them to stop or pass over a specific book, they promise to comply.

Then I thought, "So what?" I wish the people involved with the intellectual property system didn't obsess as much over the making of copies as over what individuals do with content—copied, memorized, created from scratch, whatever. Policing unauthorized copying increasingly seems a silly and futile way to balance the rights and responsibilities of authors, publishers, librarians, readers, and others.

When the right to control copying materialized, the act of making copies was nasty, brutish, arduous, and expensive. From the age of scribes right down to the heyday of photocopiers in libraries, the act of making copies always was a deliberate act involving at least a modicum of premeditation.

Things have changed. Copying has become so prevalent in the networked computerized age that, often, the act loses its premeditated, deliberate qualities. Computerized networked information systems are built on the bedrock—or shifting sands, depending on your perspective—of making copies. I don't think you even could read this blog entry without having made some sort of copy (i.e., viewing a "copy" of this post in your aggregator). Those involved with the LOCKSS initiative (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) seem to understand the new order better than those in the Authors Guild.

Copying has become so commonplace we have begun giving it catchier names, such as "caching." As a general rule, we should be wary of any human behavior for which we feel compelled to give a French name. All you saboteurs and bombardiers, if the shoe fits...

Some copying remains a willful act. After I purchase a music CD, I deliberately choose to rip it in order to listen to tunes when and where I want. I don't share those ripped files with anyone, not even Max. This strikes me as the type of time, place, and device shifting that Jenny Levine and others have been championing for years, and that librarianship as a whole should defend and encourage, because it improves the information experience for end-users.

The idea behind copyright is noble: generally stated, to advance science, the arts, culture, and society. But copyright also has its seamier side, with its struggles for control and cash. Even if Google Print raises the sales tide for printed books and floats all publisher boats, in the long run, Google may make more money helping people find the right book than publishers, authors, and other copyright holders will make selling those right books. This may be part of the source of chagrin for copyright holders. It's not the lost sales, but the creation of a different revenue stream.

Max barked at a squirrel and brought me out of the copyright mist. I gazed again at the moon, which, upon reflection, merely reflects the sun's light. Reflection, like caching, could be considered a form of copying. You bad, bad, beautiful moon.