At least some surfers outside the United States can legally download The Great Gatsby, 1984, Animal Farm, To the Lighthouse and even Gone with the Wind for free–because copyright laws aren’t always as tilted against readers as they are in the States. Living just across the Potomac River from the scene of the worst copyright crimes, the U.S. Capitol Building, I myself am among the deprived Yanks.
For Gatsby and other U.S.-banned downloads, lucky people overseas can thank the usual suspects at Project Gutenberg, which is carefully using non-American sites to distribute these works. So far in the States, the private sector has not come through in Gatsby-style situations. TeleRead for years has been suggesting that Bill Gates buy cyber rights to the Fitzgerald classic, which Gates might even be able to purchase at a slight discount since the novel is already free anyway outside the U.S. He has not acted even though he bought rare early copies of the book for the library of his $50-million-plus mansion and says Gatsby is among his favorites. What happened to the much-touted Carnegie act? Just why can’t Gates, if he loves the novel, share his enthusiasm and provide this one little alternatives to piracy? Better late than never.
Please note that I myself am pro-copyright law, and in fact TeleRead would strengthen copyright by making it more workable. A well-stocked national digital library could pay authors and publishers fairly and reduce the incentives for illegal copying, even if not all books were covered. Meanwhile the C word, and I don’t mean “copying,” is increasingly hated for reasons far beyond the Napster debacle. Eventually American voters may catch on and force DC to enact massive reforms if the courts back off from the essential. U.S. copyright terms can last 70 years after an author’s death, thanks to massive campaign donations from the likes of the Mouseketeers at Disney. Some Net activists have even warned against the creation of a copyright gentry.
Now here is a related irony. While Googling around for 1984 references, I came across a fascinating Usenet message, reporting that the U.S. publisher of 1984 asked for a blurb from, of all people, J. Edgar Hoover. An online urban myth? Who knows. But chances are that the item is real. The cited source is the now-dead site of APBnews.com, from which the Usenet poster apparently quoted in full. Oh, horror of horrors. Copyright violations on the Net! Of course, if someone hadn’t flouted the copyright laws, I’d have never have found the item in the first place. A well-stocked national digital library could preserve such gems. Even the people behind the wonderful Waybackmachine.org would admit their resources are limited. Only so much can be done on the private side alone.
While the APB.net material is too recent for my taste to reach the public domain, this example is still a great illustration of the folly of Draconian copyright laws and the usefulness of well-stocked national digital library system with provisions for spreading around both free material and the pay-per-download variety. In fact, if TeleRead had existed, as opposed to simply a balkanized collection of commercial databases, maybe APBnews or its creditors could have earned at least a small fee when I was Googling. Yes, a TeleRead library could be an integral part of the Internet (with, I might add, provisions for access from outside the U.S. by people overseas for a small subscription fee for basic U.S. service–and help to other countries in setting up their own independent TeleReads). Northern Lights-style operations are not true libraries and often care more about corporate business than individual readers. And operations such as the thankfully rescued Net Library have huge gaps in their collections and make access to e-books far less convenient than it should be. More on this in a future blogging.