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The Modern Trend Towards Digitization: The Ambitious Plan to Create a United States National Digital Library

Published onMar 21, 2011
The Modern Trend Towards Digitization: The Ambitious Plan to Create a United States National Digital Library

As technology continues to impact our lives, the book industry has seen a modern movement towards digitization.  A decade ago, the norm was to read books in paper form from your local library or bookstore.  Today, the popularity of e-readers such as Kindle, NOOK, iBooks, and Google Books has soared rapidly.  In fact, Kindle is Amazon’s number one selling product for two consecutive years and has received the most 5-star reviews of any product on Amazon’s website.  In terms of availability, Kindle boasts a selection of 670,000 copyrighted books and 1.8 million books that are in the public domain while NOOK offers 1 million copyrighted books and half a million books in the public domain.  The trend towards digitization has also given rise to a monumental and ambitious new project: a U.S. national digital library.

This past December, the Berkman Center for Internet and Security at Harvard University stated its intention to coordinate a program for private and public groups to collaborate to create a “digital public library of America.”  The Berkman Center is a research program established to explore cyberspace and break new ground in its development.  However, a digital library is by no means a novel idea.  For example, in 2005, Norway began efforts to digitize its entire collection and has thus far scanned over 170,000 books.  Similarly, in 2010, the Netherlands announced their plan to digitize Dutch books, periodicals, and newspapers from 1470 to present.  Japan, France, and even Mongolia, have similar plans.  For the United States, several challenges are present: both legal and practical.

Regarding practical concerns, digitizing the vast U.S. collection is a much harder task in the U.S. compared to smaller countries in Europe due to the U.S.’s disparate and vast library holdings. Regarding legal challenges, the U.S. project will have to navigate strict U.S. copyright law.  On a general level, classics such as Great Expectations will be in the public domain (thus, not under copyright), while novels written in recent decades will have copyright protection.  For works created on or after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright protection is the life of the author plus 70 years.  For works that do have copyright protection, offering these works in a national digital library free of charge would constitute copyright infringement.  To resolve this issue, several possible solutions exist.  One solution, though unlikely in most cases, would be to get permission from the copyright holder to display his/her work online for free.  A more feasible solution would be to follow the example set forth by Google Books.

Over the past couple of years, Google Books has created an online digital library of more than seven million books.  Out of copyright books that are in the public domain are offered free of charge while copyrighted books are available for purchase.  Google was able to post copyrighted books on their website by negotiating individual agreements with each specific copyright holder.  The U.S. Project would similarly have to spend a great deal of time and resources to negotiate agreements for copyrighted novels if it decided to pursue this route.

While these challenges may seem daunting, the potential benefits of a U.S. national digital public library are remarkable.  A national library would bring millions of books at the fingertips of high schools, universities, public libraries, retirement communities, and any individual with an internet connection.  In addition, digitizing novels would make delicate or valuable collections accessible while eliminating the risk of theft, damage, or wear and tear.  Only time will tell if the U.S. national digital library project flourishes into a successful reality.  The most effective helping hand to the project would be bipartisan support in Congress.  With this support, the U.S. project would lobby for a change in copyright laws that would allow novels under copyright protection to become a part of the digital library free of charge.  While the road to a U.S. national digital library is riddled with pits and sinkholes, the potential impact of this project on the lives of Americans would be extraordinary and welcomed by many in this era of technological innovation.

*Vlad Vidaeff is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law and is Vice President of the International Law Society.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sport Management and a minor in French from the University of Michigan.  Upon graduation in May 2012, Mr. Vidaeff intends to either practice intellectual property law, international law, or sports and entertainment law.

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