Lessons from the Internet Bookmobile

by Richard Koman

"Forget Mickey Mouse," Lawrence Lessig told an admiring crowd at a reception after the Supreme Court arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft. "The real opportunity is what Brewster is working on, what Eldred is working on. The opportunity is to take material and give it back to our culture."

"Eldred," of course, is Eric Eldred, publisher of Eldritch Press and lead plaintiff in the case. "Brewster" is Brewster Kahle, director of the Internet Archive, and inventor of the Internet Bookmobile, a high-tech version of those buses with bookshelves that used to come visit your school in the second grade.

From September 30 until the big day on October 9, I traveled across the country with Brewster, his eight-year-old son Caslon and two other friends from San Francisco. Loaded in the back of the Bookmobile were an HP duplexing color printer, a couple of laptops, a desktop binding machine, and a paper cutter. On top was a MotoSat dish with Internet connection. We drove from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.--stopping at schools in East Palo Alto, California, Salt Lake City, Baltimore, and Washington; the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh; and the Great American Bookmobile Conference in Columbus, Ohio--taking ASCII text versions of public domain works available online and turning them into books. When the Bookmobile shows up at a school, kids get to operate the paper cutter to make books, each classroom gets a few books to keep, and everyone gets a lesson in the applications of the public domain.

While it wasn't always clear to the public what we were up to exactly--were we selling books? selling the equipment?--eventually the point crystallized: the Bookmobile is a demo of a public domain application. It addresses the basic question: What good is the public domain?

Related Article:

Free Culture: Lawrence Lessig Keynote from OSCON 2002 -- In his keynote address to a packed house at OSCON 2002, Lawrence Lessig challenges the open source audience to get more involved in the political process. Read the complete transcript of Lawrence's keynote presentation made on July 24, 2002.

Unlimited Possibilities

One of the government's main arguments in Eldred--since they couldn't argue that extending copyrights retroactively stimulates creativity--was that work is more likely to be disseminated if a publisher or a studio has a commercial interest in distributing it. This is false in theory: How many people have seen "Steamboat Willie," Mickey Mouse's first film, which would have gone into the public domain if Sonny Bono hadn't intervened? How many would see it if it were freely available to be digitized and downloaded from Kazaa?

But the Bookmobile shows that the proposition is false in fact. The Bookmobile's message, in essence, is that these are books we can put in the hands of children, through schools, and we can do it at a very low cost. (The material cost for a black and white book with color cover is $1.) We can create large-print versions of these books and put them in the hands of senior citizens, and we can deliver them to their homes or to retirement centers. We can transform libraries into public-domain printing plants. And we can enable commercial publishers to create new products that attract new customers, both young and old.

Two things are required for these possibilities to be realized:

  • A rich public domain. Either the 1998 law must be overturned, or Congress must be convinced to repeal the law on its own. Failing a full-scale repeal, the retroactive clause (the part that extends Mickey Mouse's copyright, as opposed to the copyright on works not yet created) must be removed. This is not only because the current law outrageously denies hundreds of thousands of works to the public, but also because failure to overturn means that Congress is free to extend copyrights whenever it wants, and the words of the Constitution's framers--"limited terms"--are directly contradicted.

  • Putting the public domain online. Everything in the public domain must go on the Net. All of it. This is the single biggest action individuals can take. Find public domain materials, get them scanned and upload them to the Archive Web site. The Internet Archive is offering unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth for this purpose.

Who Gets It?

It's not at all clear that the Supreme Court will overturn. The case is "in trouble," Charles Nesson of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard opined at a post-hearing reception on Capitol Hill. The trouble largely stems from the question of the massive rewrite of the Copyright Act in 1976, which extended copyright terms to lifetime of the author plus 50 years. How can the 1998 law be unconstitutional but the 1976 law just fine? Speaking at the reception, sponsored by Public Knowledge, Lessig based his hopes on faith that the Court would be as "creative" in its logic here as they have been in the past.

Still, Lessig is confident about the case. "I am obviously extremely happy with where we are," he writes in his Weblog. "The Court is struggling with the right issue; they are motivated to get the right answer; they have a clear and simple way to give the right answer; the government has made it very hard to accept its answer. It is always hard to get the Court to strike a law of Congress, but this law is so universally flawed, and the case against it is so universally strong, that I continue to be confident that the Court could choose to strike the law."

Whatever happens in the case, Lessig claimed victory for the cause, since "four years ago people told me I was insane to bring this case, not because it was without merits but because no one got it--not the press, not the public, certainly not the politicians." What happened in the Supreme Court argument, Lessig said, was that the Court showed they "got it." As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "It is hard to understand how, if the overall purpose of the Copyright Clause is to encourage creative work, how some retroactive extension could possibly do that. One wonders what was in the minds of Congress."

The public gets it, too. As we traveled the country and talked to people about the public domain, no one--not one single person--disagreed with this premise that more, not fewer, books should be in the public domain, and sooner rather than later. Not one single person in Utah or Ohio, Washington or California, said, "You're wrong--it's important for artists to enrich their heirs for another 20 years." No one said, "I think publishers and studios should be able to make money forever on their creations." No one said, "I couldn't care less if thousands of works are kept out of students' hands, so long as Disney gets to keep control of its movies forever."

Even the press gets it. After the argument, The New York Times editorialized: "The purpose of the 1998 Congressional extension was not protecting artists, but enriching media companies that hold property rights in their creations, virtually in perpetuity. The founders did not envision copyright being put to this use, and the Supreme Court should not allow it." A Washington Post editorial doubted the Court could overturn the law with legitimacy, but agreed that the law is atrocious policy: "At some point, serial and retroactive extensions of "limited times" render copyright protection unlimited. And it seems wrong for Congress to be able to circumvent what would clearly be unconstitutional--granting indefinite copyright protection--by simply extending protection incrementally every few years."

Regardless of the Court's decision, or public or press opinion on the matter, there still exists a public domain and it is effectively available to the public only to the degree that it is online. As Brewster says: "Never mind about the stuff that's still under copyright. If we can't get the public domain online, we don't deserve to get the other stuff." The Bookmobile was Brewster's attempt to show some of the public domain is online and to demonstrate an application of what can be done with it. But it is only a demo. The real payoff comes when mature institutions in critical positions take the public domain and run with it. Let's look at libraries, schools, and the commercial sector. In conclusion, we'll talk about what the government's responsibility is here.

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