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When Google and others impose licenses on government documents and other works in the public domain

Access to Old Information, by Steven M. Bellovin, SMBlog, 8 March 2009.

Bellovin notes that Google “requests” you use public domain books you download from books.google.com for “personal, non-commercial purposes.” This isn’t a new issue, of course, and Bellovin points out that Congressional Information Services, Inc. claims that its microfilms of a U.S. government documents cannot be reused “except for individual research.”

He continues:

What we are seeing is the use of contract law to obtain rights not granted by copyright. If we are not careful, we will see public information locked up. Worse yet, digital records can be protected by so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, making them inaccessible except on terms dictated by the physical record’s owner.

…We need to ask about the fate of public documents (such as government records) and about the role of libraries…. [I]f a private company is going to be the designated publisher, it should not control how the documents are used.

He also calls on libraries to do their part to keep this from happening, for “By agreeing to stringent restrictions, above and beyond what would be permitted under the Fair Use doctrine of copyright law, [libraries] undermine their own goals.

I would add that, in the digital age, one way we can ensure free access to government information is by making the raw, complete digital information universally freely and accessible. Private sector companies can then add value and put their restrictions on their added value services, not on the content.

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1 Comment

  1. bklein says:

    As a business practice to recover costs and turn a profit, repackagers of government, public domain or other copyright exempt works usually impose contract terms and conditions of use.

    Although such “licenses” co-opt First Sale rights in the physical manifestation (pdf, microfiche or hard-copy paper), the content is still free for anyone to use for any purpose when stripped from its delivery medium.

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