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Jan. 10, 2005. 01:00 AM
National Web library do-able, affordable, visionary

MICHAEL GEIST

In the mid-1990s, Ottawa established a bold new vision for the Internet in Canada. The centrepiece was a commitment to establish national Internet access from coast to coast to coast, supported by a program that would enable the country to quickly become the first in the world to connect every single school, no matter how small or large, to the Internet. Not only did Canada meet its goal, but it completed the program ahead of schedule.

As we enter the middle of this decade, the time has come for Industry Minister David Emerson and his colleagues to articulate a new future-oriented vision for the Canadian Internet.

While the last decade centred on access to the Internet, the dominant issue this decade is focused on access to the content on the Internet. To address that issue, the federal government should again think big.

One opportunity is to greatly expand the National Library of Canada's digital efforts by becoming the first country in the world to create a comprehensive national digital library.

The library, which would be fully accessible online, would contain a digitally scanned copy of every book, government report, and legal decision ever published in Canada.

A national digital library would provide unparalleled access to Canadian content in English and French along with aboriginal and heritage languages such as Yiddish and Ukrainian. The library would serve as a focal point for the Internet in Canada, providing an invaluable resource to the education system and ensuring that access to knowledge is available to everyone, regardless of economic status or geographic location.

From a cultural perspective, the library would establish an exceptional vehicle for promoting Canadian creativity to the world, leading to greater awareness of Canadian literature, science, and history.

By extending the library to government documents and court decisions, it would help meet the broader societal goal of providing all Canadians with open access to their laws and government policies. Moreover, since the government holds the copyright associated with its own reports and legal decisions, it is able to grant complete, unrestricted access to all such materials immediately alongside the approximately 100,000 Canadian books that are already part of the public domain.

Creating virtual libraries to complement the world's great physical libraries is already underway. Project Gutenberg, an all-volunteer initiative, has succeeded in bringing thousands of public domain texts to the Web.

Last summer, the British Library unveiled an ambitious plan to digitize and freely post on the Internet thousands of historical newspapers that are now in the public domain. That plan will bring more than one million pages of history to the Internet, including work from a young Charles Dickens.

Last month Google announced that it had reached agreement with several of the world's leading research libraries, including ones at Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Oxford, and the New York Public Library, to scan more than 15 million books into its search archive.

Once the Google project is completed, the general public will enjoy complete, full-text access to thousands of books that are now part of the public domain because the term of copyright associated with those books has expired.

For books that remain subject to copyright, Google will still scan a copy of the book, but will only grant the general public more modest access to its content, providing users with smaller excerpts of the work — a policy that is consistent with principles of fair use under copyright law.

The Google project epitomizes the essence of the copyright balance. The public will benefit from unrestricted access to works in the public domain along with more limited access to other work, all without the need to seek any prior permission.

Authors will still enjoy copyright protection in their work and will frequently find that greater access leads to increased commercial success.

While digitally scanning more than 10 million Canadian books and documents is a daunting task, the Google project illustrates that it is financially feasible. Reports suggest that it will cost Google approximately $10 to scan each book.

Assuming similar costs for a Canadian project and a five-year timeline, the $20 million annual price tag represents a fraction of the total governmental commitment toward Canadian culture and Internet development.

In fact, the most significant barriers to a national digital library do not arise from fiscal challenges but rather from two potential copyright reforms currently winding their way through the system.

First, the federal government is contemplating reversing the decade-old policy of avoiding Internet licensing by creating a new licensing system for Internet content that would create new restrictions to accessing online content.

By proposing a very narrow definition of what can be accessed without compensation, the plan would effectively force millions of Canadian students to pay for access to content that is otherwise publicly available.

Despite opposition from the education community, the proposal is marching forward, constituting a significant setback to the goal of encouraging Internet use in Canada.

Given the Supreme Court of Canada's recent commitment to copyright balance and robust user rights, it is clear that for most uses no license is needed to provide schools with appropriate access to online content such as a potential national digital library. With this in mind, this proposal should be quickly scrapped.

Second, the Canadian Heritage Minister Liza Frulla's Copyright Policy Branch recently announced that this year it plans to launch a public consultation on a proposal to extend the term of copyright in Canada from its current 50 years after the death of the author to at least 70 years after death (authors enjoy exclusive copyright in their work from the moment of creation until 50 years after they die).

Extending the copyright term would deal a serious blow to a national digital library because it would instantly remove thousands of works from the public domain. Although the U.S. and European Union have extended their copyright terms by an additional 20 years, the vast majority of the world's population lives in countries that have not.

Those countries have recognized that an extension is unsupportable from a policy perspective. It will not foster further creative activity, it is not required under international intellectual property law, and it effectively constitutes a massive transfer of wealth from the public to the heirs of a select group of copyright holders.

Given the economic and societal dangers associated with a copyright term extension, even moving forward with a consultation constitutes an embarrassing case of putting the interests of a select few ahead of the public interest.

A new year is traditionally a time for bold, new resolutions. As Parliamentarians return to Ottawa, they should be encouraged to seize the opportunity to establish a national vision for the Internet that will again propel Canada into a global leadership position.

Supported by appropriate copyright policies, a national digital library comprised of every Canadian book ever published would provide an exceptional resource for Canadians at home as well as advantageously promote the export of Canadian culture abroad.


Michael Geist is the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. He is

on-line at http://www.michaelgeist.ca. The opinions expressed herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Ottawa.

Additional articles by Michael Geist


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