What’s Mine Is Yours

The Bitterroot Public Library is a coppery-brick building on two floors, settled at the corner of State St and 4th St, a block off of Main St. Isn’t that just the perfect address for a small town library? 

It’s got a lawn, a bike rack, a gazebo, spreading trees, picnic tables, and a red wooden bridge across the sort of irrigation ditch where small towns run Duck Derbies as fundraisers (if you don’t know what Duck Derbies are, you’re missing out. Think of a big basket of plastic bathtub duckies dumped in a five-foot wide and two-foot deep ditch to race and raise funds for a local hospital and earn a prize for the winning duck-owner, like a quilt or a gift certificate or something).

I spent many happy afternoons sitting on that lawn, standing on that bridge, tossing sticks in the ditch to watch them race under the bridge even when I was too teenage to care about such simple joys. 

And the library itself: sunlit, full of comfortingly-solid wooden shelves full of books. 

A quiet sanctum for quiet teens too awkward to date and who loved to read. You could hear when someone turned the page on a newspaper, follow dust motes down a sunbeam from the window to the page. 

It’s the kind of institution where the locals volunteer their skills to help maintain the computer network, and where people flock to annual book sales, hauling away used books by the bag to raise funds to keep the library going. The institution that inspires service for years (Bon voyage, Nansu!).

The written word, knowledge, peace, quiet. If a train station is a cathedral to traveling and the unknown, a library is a temple to learning and information and the unknown.

The BPL even has an online option to check out e-books. 

When a local library in Hamilton, Montana has an e-book option, it shows how clearly the Internet Archive’s Emergency Library was no more than hubris and a terrible overreaching. 

The Internet Archive is an amazing project, don’t get me wrong; their mission is to be “a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.”  They look to provide “Universal Access to All Knowledge.”

That sounds noble, without a doubt.

They make knowledge available to anyone. They can preserve texts free from censorship. They can be a hub of information, ensuring it remains open.

But they can also be pirates. 

And here’s where their mission gets murky. 

If the Internet Archive limited themselves to scanning books that were out of copyright, there would be no issue. Or if they maintained their “Controlled Lending” policy of letting only one person at a time borrow a digital copy of a book the Internet Archive had purchased, that would be fine too, because friends lending to friends is perfect. 

But the issue with the Internet Archive is they decided to remove the limits on how many people could borrow a digital title at a single time. 

A metaphor: a library buys one copy of a novel from a writer. It lends that copy of the novel to a reader in the town. No one else can read that borrowed copy until the borrower is done with it. 

The artist/author was paid for their efforts through the purchase of a single copy. 

But the Internet Archive decided to suddenly let as many people read a given e-book at the same time as wanted to do so. 

A metaphor: the Internet Archive bought one copy of a book, waved their hand, and suddenly had millions of copies of that book to distribute for free to people who might otherwise buy the book or have to wait for it to be available through their local library. 

Free information is one thing; free works of art? That’s something else. Even if the ideas are universal, no one else expressed those ideas in just the same way as the artist.

If you had a nice crisp bill to represent a resource worth $20, and you copied that bill a thousand times and gave it to your friends, what would you call that?

Let’s be clear: the Internet Archive wasn’t selling these books. Nevertheless, they were distributing a resource that wasn’t theirs to distribute.

And hence the lawsuit. 

“As a library, the Internet Archive acquires books and lends them, as libraries have always done,” [Internet Archive founder Brewster] Kahle told The Verge.

Yes, but… libraries don’t make thousands of extra copies of the books they buy. Copyright matters; the owner of the copyright has the right to control how many copies are made and how they are distributed.

And, yes, copyright expires. 

You talk about the free flow of information. But a novel or an academic text? That’s not just a plate of ideas or information; someone had to craft those ideas and bits of information into a coherent whole. And why should the author make that effort without compensation, whether financial or for sheer satisfaction? 

Certainly there are some authors and publishing houses that would be happy to put their writing out there, for free, no restrictions on borrowing. And that’s fine. 

But there are so many writers out there who need all the income they can get from their pen. They don’t have health insurance. They don’t know if their next book will get published. What if they lose track of the stories that make them successful? 

Why should they give away their work for free? 

An Emergency Library. You could make an argument for overriding copyright restrictions for academic texts that might be needed for students pursuing vital degrees. But novels?

I love to read, but other than The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and certain P.G. Wodehouse novels, I can’t say that I would consider it an emergency to be able to read a given novel at any given time, waiting be damned.

But are the goals of the Internet Archive worthy? Of course they are. 

Support your local library (after defunding your local sheriff, perhaps). Donate to a Friends of the Library organization (as libraries, as public entities, might be constrained when it comes to accepting donations directly). Give them the means to establish their own e-book program to see their patrons through this and the next shelter-in-place emergency. 

For those countries/states without libraries? Look to organizations like kiva.org and others for ways to donate to people who promote the businesses and services you think everyone needs. 

You don’t have to give away what belongs to you, but sharing goods and money is like sharing information: it’s very relaxed, like a happy June day watching water skeeters dancing among the reeds as a pine cone rides the current to the drain and dark unknown ahead.

Published by dmhallett101

Husband, father, writer, reader, mostly in that order. Staying sane by pretending to be creative by playing with (WordPress) blocks.

One thought on “What’s Mine Is Yours

  1. I didn’t really know about this. But I remember being all freaked when Google was somehow threatening to acquire every published book text… I don’t know what became of that issue. I love your description of time spent at the library. And I miss the Duck Derby!


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