Boston Athenaeum Lecture Series: Libraries and Copyright

Last night I attended a lecture called Libraries and Copyright: Hands Off, That’s Mine! Who Owns What And For How Long? at Boston Public Library’s Raab Lecture Hall. The lecture is part of a series Current and Back Issues: Persistent Themes in the Library, part of the bicentennial events of the Boston Athenaeum (despite this, all the lectures take place at the BPL). Speaking last night were Meredith McGill of Rutgers University and Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan of New York University. The Boston Athenaeum’s William Strong moderated the discussion.

I don’t have much to write about the lecture, because:

  • A. I didn’t take notes (it was too dark).
  • B. I have a mind like a sieve and can’t remember anything.
  • C. I nodded off for a bit of the lecture (this is NO REFLECTION ON THE QUALITY OF THE SPEAKERS, it was just dark and I was sleepy).

McGill spoke first offering an historic perspective of copyright in the 19th Century. Apparently for the first century or so after the ratification of the Constitution, the United States did not recognize international copyright. As a result, books published in Europe were reprinted in the United States off in densely-printed, two-column per page format much like a magazine. The idea was to sell cheap copies of great European writing to encourage the ideal of civic republicanism. As Vaidhyanathan stated later, US legal views on international copyright didn’t change until the economic shift where US publishers became the primary source of printed materials for export.

Vaidhyanathan focused more on contemporary issues in copyright. Specifically, he talked about how copyright changed from protecting the consumer (providing quality literature for readers to help create Madison’s civic republicanism) to protecting the author and corporations. In the question and answer period after the lecture a lot of the audience were concerned with Google Books. Specifically what does Google owe to the public (answer: nothing, they just provide things that will drive people to their site to create revenue). Also there’s a lot of concern that institutions like University of Michigan Libraries just gave away a lot of their resources to Google, did not incorporate library ethics and scholarly concerns into the contracts, and pretty much bargained from a position of weakness when they did not have to.

And that’s about all that I remember. I’ll be looking around to see if anyone else who attend this lecture writes about it and post some links.

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