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Digital Info Strategy Requires Courage Before Cash

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Monday December 11, 2006
Appeared in the Toronto Star on December 11, 2006 as Let Loose the Flow of Digital Information

More than one hundred representatives from libraries, museums, archives, publishers, copyright collectives, the education community, and government gathered last week in snowy Montebello, Quebec for a national summit on a Canadian digital information strategy.  The by-invitation only event marked the culmination of a year-long cross-country effort to ensure that Canada is not left behind as our trading partners race to develop their own 21st century digitization plans.

Throughout the two days, it became clear that this issue has reached a critical juncture.  More than ten years ago, the federal government established the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), a public-private partnership that laid the groundwork for essential policy initiatives (such as SchoolNet, which enabled Canada to become the first country in the world to provide Internet access in every school) and legal reforms (including national privacy legislation and e-commerce regulations). 

Although an IHAC successor is unlikely to materialize, the courage to craft a similar forward-looking vision that seeks to leverage emerging technologies for economic, education, and cultural benefits is sorely needed. 

The good news is that many provincial governments and organizations are not waiting for Ottawa to act.

The Province of Alberta has backed new high-speed networks to facilitate province-wide broadband access, while the Government of Quebec’s library and archives has embarked on a remarkable digitization initiative that will preserve hundreds of thousands of documents that pre-date Confederation.

Earlier this year, 18 Canadian universities launched Alouette Canada, which is partnering with dozens of institutions to digitize content and to make it easier for users to access the growing body of knowledge that is moving from dusty library shelves to high-speed computer servers.

Meanwhile, Synergies, an initiative led by five Canadian universities including the University of Toronto, plans to digitize Canadian social science research. Once fully operational, it will provide researchers with a new outlet to disseminate their work and give Canadians open access to cutting-edge research.

Canadian museums are transforming their collections into digital archives that serve users around the world.  For example, Montreal’s McCord Museum of Canadian History has already digitized more than 125,000 images, all of which are freely accessible.

In addition to these formal initiatives, the blossoming of user generated content - virtually all of which is "born digital" - has led to millions of freely available blogs, videos, photos, and music.  The Internet community is also contributing to the wildly successful Wikipedia, which features millions of articles on every imaginable subject, to Project Gutenberg, which has digitized more than 19,000 public domain books, and to LibriVox, which is creating audio versions of those same books.

This enormous energy suggests that digitization will flourish regardless of whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, and Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda adopt a formal strategy.  However, despite the good news, the summit also left little doubt that there are immediate steps that can be taken to pave the way for even more.

In fact, the federal government would do well to resist introducing expensive new initiatives by first maximizing the benefits that can be extracted from the current set of policies and programs. For example, Canada spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on research funding through its three federal granting institutions in the health, sciences, and social science fields.  The government should mandate an open access model that would require that all taxpayer-funded research be made available to the public at no charge within six months of initial publication.

Ottawa could also amend the legal deposit program that requires all Canadian publishers to provide the National Library with two copies of every newly published book.  By expanding the program’s requirements to also include a digital copy, the government would effortlessly build a digital library featuring thousands of new books.

The government could also address some relatively non-controversial copyright issues that currently pose significant access barriers to digital information. 

Crown copyright, the archaic policy that grants the government copyright over its own work, should be dropped, thereby enabling thousands of documents to instantly enter into the public domain.  The elimination of crown copyright would not only facilitate access, but also spur new commercial innovation as businesses follow the U.S. model of providing new services on top of freely available government data.

A new policy for orphan works - those works for whom the original copyright owner can no longer be found or identified - would also foster greater digital access by removing the risk associated with using older works that have not yet entered the public domain.

Although more contentious, an expansion of the Copyright Act's fair dealing provision would help open the floodgates to private sector digitization programs. The presence of a broader "fair use" provision in the U.S. has convinced Google to partner with nearly a dozen leading universities to digitize millions of books.  A parallel Canadian provision could similarly stimulate digital access initiatives with Canadian partners.

With those steps in place, a broader digital information strategy - one that includes other private sector partners such as the telecommunications and high technology industries absent from the Montebello summit - could then follow with funding programs and identifiable targets that create incentives for the private sector and the provinces to develop a decentralized, broad-based plan to maximize access to digital works. 

As the summit drew to a close, several participants noted that this effort should not be viewed as a digital strategy for Canada, but rather as a strategy for a digital Canada.  Indeed, digitization is already here, forever changing the way we communicate, educate, and compete in the global marketplace. 

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.


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